Freedom To Die

Image courtesy of  Unsplash .

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer was convicted of the second-degree murder of his daughter Tracy Latimer in 1997. She was suffering from cerebral palsy and was in constant pain. For this reason, her father put her in the back of his pickup truck and left the gas running in the garage until she died of carbon monoxide intoxication. This led to a controversial debate in Canada regarding assisted suicide and euthanasia. On February 7th 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Carter v Canada that provisions in the Criminal Code that made medically assisted suicide illegal were unconstitutional. This led to the formulation of Bill C-14, which amended the Criminal Code and created a framework for this practice. The goal of this article is to briefly define the legislation adopted by the federal government regarding this topic and explain its various criticisms.

A main criticism of the original bill put forward by Parliament was that it requires death to be “reasonably foreseeable” in order for patients to be eligible for the treatment

The Courts gave the guideline that a consenting adult patient with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” in an “advanced stage of irreversible decline” can be administered a drug which may end his or her life. Defining the medical, physical and psychological criteria is reserved for Parliament.

main criticism of the original bill put forward by Parliament was that it requires death to be “reasonably foreseeable” in order for patients to be eligible for the treatment. Leading legal scholar Peter Hogg and the Canadian Bar Association argued during a parliamentary committee that this provision of the bill is unconstitutional because it restricts those who have an irremediable and unbearable pain but will not die soon due to access to basic healthcare. Multiple sclerosis and ALS are examples of such conditions.. The Trudeau administration maintained that its bill was constitutionally valid but never demanded a Supreme Court reference in order to prove this. The Senate ended up amending the bill in order to exclude this criterion.

There are also criticisms from those who think that Bill C-14 is too permissive – usually those from faith groups. For example, the Canadian Conference of Canadian Bishops(CCCB) “[urged] all Catholics and others who share similar principles and values to inform federal and provincial / territorial legislators of their concerns on the sanctity of life and the conscience rights of healthcare workers.” Since groups like the CCCB usually invoke the general principle of the sanctity of life, it is unclear whether they advocate for repealing the law or making it less permissive. Repealing it would still make assisted suicide legal, since the provisions of Carter v Canada would apply. 

The only way for this not to apply, section 33 of the Charter would have to be invoked by the House of Commons. This would mean that Parliament would repeal the law without considering the provisions of the Charter and would have to renew this decision every five years. Since Bill C-14 is a fulfillment of a Liberal promise and the notwithstanding clause has never been used by the House ever since the adoption of the Charter in 1982, it is extremely unlikely that this would happen.

Conservative MP Rosemarie Falk proposed to restrict the access to this treatment only for people who are likely to die within thirty days. However, it is improbable that such legislation would be approved following a charter challenge, since it would further restrict the eligible population for assisted suicide than the current law.

The criticism from faith groups that the law could violate the “conscience rights of healthcare workers” is unfounded, since no doctor or nurse would be forced to administer medically-assisted suicide. The law explicitly states that it “does not force any person to provide or help to provide medical assistance in dying.” This provision was first present in Quebec’s Bill 52, which was passed in 2014. Bill C-14 made this the law for every province.

Both Bill C-14 and Bill 52 make clear that this treatment is only for adults. This is contrary to the legislation in Belgium, which also gives minors access to this if their parents agree and if this decision is certified by a psychiatrist or a psychologist.This shows that though this law might be labelled as “progressive”, there are many fundamental variables that are different in countries around the world.

OpinionJean-Philippe Roch