Monday, February 16, 2015

Canada’s Supreme Court Mandates Assisting Suicide for People with Disabilities

By Burke J. Balch, J.D.,
Director of NRLC’s Powell Center for Medical Ethics

People with disabilities must be killed when they consent under a February 6, 2015, decision by Canada’s highest court striking the Canadian law protecting against assisting suicide.

Unlike doctor-prescribed suicide laws in Oregon, Washington and Vermont that theoretically are limited to those with terminal illness, the sweeping ruling allows killing any Canadian who “has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”

“Irremediable,” the court stressed, “does not require the patient to undertake treatments that are not acceptable to the individual.”

Even this broad language, which leaves it hard to identify any circumstances in which a subjective statement by an individual that she or he thinks life is not worth living would fail to authorize assisting suicide, may in the future be expanded. The court explicitly stated, “We make no pronouncement on other situations where physician-assisted dying may be sought.”

While the ruling on its face only applies to “a competent adult person who . . . clearly consents to the termination of life,” the court hinted that it may later hold that surrogates have the right to kill people with disabilities who cannot speak for themselves and have never asked to die. After rejecting any distinction between rejecting life-preserving treatment and direct killing, stating that both hasten death, the court noted, “In some cases, [decisions to reject life-saving treatment] are governed by advance directives, or made by a substitute decision-maker.”

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