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By Peter Novecosky, OSB
Abbot Peter NovokoskyCourt allows assisted suicide

The Supreme Court of Canada made a landmark decision that will be a game changer for the practice of medicine in Canada. Reaction has been swift both from church leaders and others.

In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Feb. 6 that Canada’s century-old law against assisted suicide was unconstitutional. It gave Parliament one year to rewrite the law. The court said the current law infringes on section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, which covers the right to life, liberty, and security of the person.

The decision reverses the 1993 Supreme Court ruling in Rodriguez vs. British Columbia on the same issue. Assisted suicide has been a crime in Canada since 1892, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

The court case was initiated by a British Columbia family that challenged the law in the lower courts. Kay Carter fought to change the law, then travelled to Switzerland for doctor assisted suicide. Her daughter Lee Carter called the ruling “a huge victory” for all Canadians and a “legacy” for her mom.

The court ruling limits physician assisted suicide to “a competent adult” who “clearly consents” to end their life, and has an incurable medical condition — an “illness, disease or disability” — that causes “intolerable” suffering. The court said the suffering could be either physical or psychological pain and that the person’s medical condition need not be terminal for them to be permitted to make the decision.

In reaction to the ruling, Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, strongly objected. He noted that Catholics are called by their faith to assist all those in need, particularly the poor, the suffering and the dying. 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,” he said. “The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada today does not change Catholic teaching.”

That teaching is spelled out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2277: “(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.”

Durocher asks Canadian Catholics “to do all they can to bring comfort and support for all those who are dying and for their loved ones, so that no one, because of loneliness, vulnerability, loss of autonomy, or fear of pain and suffering, feels they have no choice but to commit suicide.” The Canadian bishops strongly promote palliative and home care.

The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) called Feb. 6 “a sad day for our country.” Canada’s highest court “has set itself up in direct opposition to the Law of God: ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ ” it said.

In a statement entitled, “God alone is the arbiter of life,” COLF outlined three major concerns. In reference to “Freedom of conscience,” it said: “The Supreme Court bases its decision on false notions of autonomy and human dignity.” It noted this decision involves others too, including medical practitioners and taxpayers.

Speaking of its restrictive legislation, COLF said: “. . .  it seems only a matter of time before euthanasia is seriously proposed as a solution to end-of-life-care in our overburdened health care systems.”

Speaking about palliative care, COLF raised the question, “Can anyone feel safe in a society in which the state, having relieved us of the responsibility of being our brother’s keeper, has given some among us permission to be his killer?”

Meanwhile supporters of assisted suicide and euthanasia have lauded the court’s decision. 

Stephen Fletcher, Canada’s first quadriplegic MP from Winnipeg, said the ruling is in line with the private member’s bill he has already put before Parliament.

A Globe and Mail editorial Feb. 6 said the court solved a choice for people “grievously and irremediably ill”: to take their own life or to suffer until they die. “The Supreme Court’s remedy for this cruel choice comes down on the right side of justice,” the paper said.

With a federal election looming this year in Canada and a parliamentary summer recess coming soon, new federal legislation may not be completed in a year’s time. This means the Criminal Code prohibition on physician assisted death will be lifted, leaving it in the same legal realm abortion has been in since a high court ruling 27 years ago: it won’t be legalized, but it won’t be illegal, either.

Another uncertainty is the right of doctors who disagree with killing someone. The court decision does not force doctors to assist in a suicide. That is a matter of conscience and an issue for doctors’ groups and Parliament to sort out, the court says. However, doctors both in Saskatchewan and Ontario are facing the opposite reality. Their respective Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons are proposing policy changes that would ultimately require doctors to refer on cases of physician assisted suicide or in some instances to kill their patients themselves. This may change the quality of students who wish to practice medicine.

People in our society today cannot stomach suffering. We are accustomed to quick fixes, whether it’s a pill or, ultimately, assisted suicide. Suffering has no meaning for many citizens, so it’s easy to justify putting an end to it all, even though alternatives are available in palliative care.

Commentator Barbara Kay gives this warning: “Once you accept the logic that suffering justifies killing, it is not easy to set boundaries. The Netherlands’ experience shows that euthanasia spreads to individuals that other people — physicians or family members — consider better off dead, and that judges’ rulings tend to bend the law to satisfy the zeitgeist.”

For those of us who are getting older, we may not see how this law will eventually play out in Canada down the line or whether Canadians will rue the day this decision was made by the highest court in our land.