OTTAWA (CCN) — Disappointment, sadness and calls to invoke the notwithstanding clause greeted the Supreme Court of Canada’s Feb. 6 decision striking down laws against physician assisted suicide.
“Catholics are called by their faith to assist all those in need, particularly the poor, the suffering and the dying,” said president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Gatineau Archbishop Paul-André Durocher. “Comforting the dying and accompanying them in love and solidarity has been considered by the church since its beginning a principal expression of Christian mercy.”
“Helping someone commit suicide, however, is neither an act of justice or mercy, nor is it part of palliative care. The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada today does not change Catholic teaching.
Durocher quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church which says: “(A)n act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, our Creator.”
“It is an extraordinarily sad day in the history of our country,” said Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) executive director Michele Boulva. “As Christians we know this goes against God’s law: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ In the decision, the Supreme Court is giving some of us permission to kill. We cannot overstate the gravity of the situation.”
“Today Canada has crossed a threshold by opening the door to assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia,” said Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) President Bruce Clemenger. “Our society has a long legal history of unambiguously affirming the sanctity of human life. The Court has ruled that in some circumstances the killing of a person will be legal. Euthanasia has come to Canada.”
“By including the ‘administration of medication’ in its definition of physician assisted death, the Court has decriminalized not only assisted suicide (defined as a person killing himself) but also voluntary euthanasia, in which medical professionals do the actual killing,” the EFC said in a news release.
“The Supreme Court has moved our country from a position where suicide was opposed outright, to a jurisdiction where suicide is to be made available on request, subject to future unknown conditions,” said the Catholic Civil Rights League, like the EFC, an intervener in the case. “The Court overruled its previous decision from 1993 in Rodriguez, in which the same provisions of the Criminal Code were upheld, by a 5-4 majority, asserting in today’s ruling that the law and factual matrix have changed in the past 22 years.”
“Under the legal principle of stare decisis whereby a Court is bound by its previous decisions, the Supreme Court should have upheld the Rodriguez case,” said REAL Women of Canada. “Instead the Court has abandoned stare decisis and ventured on to a new pathway in rendering its decisions.”
“Today’s decision on physician assisted suicide is obviously not based on law and precedent, but is based on the personal opinion of the Supreme Court Judges,” REAL Women said.
“The Court failed to mention that nine different motions or legislative attempts have been raised in Parliament in that timeframe, with six separate votes on the issue, all of which rejected efforts to change the law, recognizing the risks to the most highly vulnerable,” the League said. “In fact, in 2011 and in 2012 Parliament gave its near unanimous support for a national anti-suicide prevention policy. The Supreme Court has now undercut such legislative enactments.”
“Given that history, Parliament will need to give serious consideration to the Charter’s notwithstanding clause, to allow further time for serious reflection on the merits of what has been introduced as a new regime in Canada,” the League said. “A one year suspension in an election year is unreasonable.”
Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) also urged the federal government of Canada to invoke the notwithstanding clause.
“Canadians are afraid of dying a painful death, and we understand that, but the solution to suffering is not to be killed, it is proper pain management and proper support from the medical system, family and friends,” said CLC’s public affairs officer Johanne Brownrigg.
In the lobby of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition’s media representative Taylor Hyatt said she was “extremely disappointed” by the decision. She was expecting if the Court provided an exemption it would only include people with terminal illnesses or who are at the end of their lives. “Instead, it was specified that people with disabilities who believe their conditions to be non-terminal and insufferable could request assistance in ending their life,” she said. “That means me.”
Hyatt has cerebral palsy that affects her mobility, she said. “(The decision) is the ultimate example of the double standard presented between the able-bodied and disabled population.”
Able-bodied people have suicide prevention campaigns, she said. “The perception of a disabled life is apparently so negative it is recommended in this decision that the disabled population seek this out and end their lives.”
Amy Hasbrouck, representing the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and Toujours Vivant/Not Dead Yet, shared Hyatt’s disappointment. “Twenty years ago in the Rodriguez case, the Court said people with disabilities merit protection against the discrimination we experience in society. This court has decided that people who are discriminated against don’t merit that protection.”
She urged Canada to provide adequate palliative care and community supports. “Canada doesn’t need to spend money to run a state-sanctioned program to kill people,” she said.
The Supreme Court accepted the evidence examined by the B.C. trial judge Justice Smith in the Carter case that determined regimes that have introduced assisted suicide have adequate safeguards.
Hasbrouck said evidence from other jurisdictions shows those who have sought euthanasia have not necessarily been people with disabling conditions or severe illnesses.
She described a woman “who was legally blind like me but she decided she couldn’t bear to know there were spots on her clothes that she couldn’t see so she was given euthanasia.”
McGill University bio-ethicist Margaret Somerville and founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law also found the Supreme Court of Canada’s acceptance of the facts as found by Justice Smith in her decision disturbing.
Justice Smith had determined that safeguards work in minimizing the risk of abuse in the regimes that have decriminalized PAS.
“The Supreme Court of Ireland made an express finding to the contrary after it examined the evidence on which Justice Smith relied and came to the exact opposite conclusions,” Somerville said.
The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC) also referred to studies that show safeguards have not effectively limited the risk in jurisdictions PAS and/or euthanasia are legal. “A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that 32 per cent of euthanasia deaths in Belgium happened without the express request of the patient.”
In Oregon, the IMFC said assisted suicide deaths have doubled since 2005, IMFC said. “Prescriptions to kill patients grew by 76 per cent, whereas the population grew by only seven per cent.” In Washington assisted suicide deaths have grown by 130 per cent between 2009 and 2012, while population growth has only been 18 per cent.
In the Netherlands, euthanasia deaths doubled between 2008 and 2013, the IMFC reported.
“The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada sees no evidence to believe ‘suicide creep’ won’t also happen in Canada,” it said.
IMFC warned of other side effects that will harm families. “What has been promoted as an individual right will have profound family and community effects.”
Somerville noted that when the abortion law was liberalized, legislators believed it would “only be used in rare cases” and that there would be “very few abortions.”
“After the law was struck down in 1988 in Morgentaler, I’m certain nobody expected there would be over 100,000 abortions a year in Canada, or that between one in three and one in four pregnancies would end in abortion,” she said.
Somerville has repeatedly warned that just as abortion has become the norm, the same could happen with euthanasia.
Life Canada, a national educational prolife organization warned of the effect on the medical profession.
“What was once a criminal offence will become an acceptable medical practice,” Life Canada executive director Natalie Sonnen said in a news release. “This decision affects every Canadian now and in the future. It will teach this generation and generations to come that some lives are not worth living, that killing patients can be a medical option, and that death at the hand of a doctor is somehow a human right. “
“This decision will also have a lasting impact on our physicians, who may be pressured to either administer death or face professional censorship and discipline,” she said. “It will inevitably shift public opinion to consider assisted suicide a human right, with corresponding duties on doctors to act. Doctors can and will be pressured to submit to an act of killing patients against their will and better judgment.”