Canada’s Assisted Suicide Ruling Opens a “Pandora’s Box”

Genevieve Plaster, M.A.  

On February 5, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) voted unanimously to strike down the blanket prohibition on physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia that was in place since 1992. The ruling of Carter v. Canada is historic in that it would permit assisted suicide for psychological illness as well as physical.


Because the SCC has not defined or limited what can be considered “psychological suffering,” many are concerned that the subjective language of the ruling makes it vulnerable to abuses. The closest “definition” for either psychological or physical conditions is that it be “grievous and irremediable (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”


Supreme Court of Canada

Supreme Court of Canada


Alex Schadenberg, the Executive Director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, explains in an article appearing in the National Post that by voting to permit assisted suicide without clear limits, the SCC has “opened a Pandora’s Box.” Schadenberg continues:


“The Court has made an irresponsible decision, what is more, by using imprecise and subjective language, leaving many issues to be determined by Parliament without objective criteria. The decision sets a dangerous precedent that, if unchecked, will lead to the sort of abuses that are now common in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland.”


The subjective nature of the language also alarms disability rights groups who foresee the ruling’s negative impact on their community. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) and the Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL) write that the decision “creates the potential for the most permissive and least restrictive criteria for assisted suicide in the world, putting persons with disabilities at serious risk.”


Though the decision requires that a person “clearly consents to the termination of life,” what’s to preclude subtle coercion from tipping the scales toward a decision that cannot be undone? How does one measure clarity of consent? Insofar as the individual is judged to be competent and is made the final arbiter in the decision, there can be no further protections against hidden pressures for an irrevocable decision.


Depression in particular could play a major part in one’s decision to request death. Schadenberg points out that “[a]ssisted suicide represents an abandonment of people who live with depression who require support and proper care, and undermines important mental health and suicide prevention programs.”


It is notable that the Court did not require that a diagnosis of terminal illness be present, as the law does in Washington and Oregon. Oregon, the first U.S. state to legalize assisted suicide in 1997, requires that there be a prognosis of less than six months to live.


Research on Oregon reveals the impact of “right-to-die” laws – deaths by assisted suicide in Oregon have doubled since 2005. Other states that have legalized assisted suicide include Montana, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington, though New Mexico’s attorney general is appealing the decision.


Strangely enough, for both Canada’s and New Mexico’s rulings, a major part of the argument to permit assisted suicide is based on the principle that the state must not deprive a person of life, liberty, or property (or in Canada’s language, “life, liberty and security of the person”) without due process. By misconstruing this principle, the courts have placed priority of the right to individual liberty over the right to life. That is, a doctor has a supposed right to prescribe a lethal drug to a person exercising his liberty in pursuit of death. That the fundamental “right-to-life” principle is used as a legal strategy to advance “right-to-die” legislation reveals how backward and twisted these legal rulings have become.


The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision has truly unsealed Pandora’s Box. Once opened, it is too late and difficult to close. Though a chance still exists that the lid may be kept on if the “notwithstanding clause” is used to overrule the Court, that chance is slim. May it not be too late, when proponents of legal assisted suicide recognize that the right to liberty can only follow if the right to life is first upheld.


Genevieve Plaster is a Research Assistant for Charlotte Lozier Institute.


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