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Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS)

In Canada: Quotes; Overview; Court cases

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Quotations:

bullet"Euthanasia and assisted suicide are covert and unregulated in the Canada of today. Also, their accessibility has more to do with 'connections' than with need. They must become available within an open, regulated and equitable system. People who are suffering intolerably from an incurable condition must have an adequate level of information and support with respect to every one of their options -- including, though not limited to, the option of a hastened death." The goals of the Right to Die Society of Canada. 1
 
bullet"The nature of assisted suicide does not allow you to provide protection for vulnerable people. The whole idea is wrong from the beginning. Assisted suicide is a direct threat to those with chronic disabilities and the elderly.....It's an issue of the powerful over the weak. We can't bring in a law that allows you to kill someone." Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition 2
 
bullet"Whose body is this?" Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from ALS and "...single-handedly catapulted the right to die debate onto the public stage" during 1991. 3

Overview:

As in the United States and many other countries, suicide is legal in Canada if a person can carry out the act by themself. However, obtaining assistance to commit suicide is not legal. Thus, Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) is a criminal act.

In 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada heard a case brought by Sue Rodriguez. 4 Suffering from ALS, and expecting her health to continue to degenerate, she filed a lawsuit seeking the legal right to obtain assistance in committing suicide. In 1993-MAY, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees the security of the person does not include the right to obtain assisted suicide. The vote was narrow: 5 to 4, and resembled the very common vote of the U.S. Supreme Court on moral and ethical matters. According to an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal: Four

"....judges dissented, finding that Rodriguez was discriminated against on grounds of disability, in violation of the charter, because the option of attempting suicide, legally available to anyone, was not available to her because she was physically unable to commit suicide. The majority (of 5 judges) felt that even if she was discriminated against, the discrimination was deemed to be within the reasonable limits that could be imposed in a free and democratic society." 5

A sampling of criminal charges involving assisted suicide:

bullet 1994: British Columbia: Sue Rodriguez was diagnosed with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease), was in degenerating health, and sought permission through the courts to allow her to request assistance in committing suicide. She lost both at the British Columbia Supreme Court (in 1992-DEC) and at the Supreme Court of Canada (in 1993-MAY). 3 The Supreme Court decision was by a narrow 5 to 4 vote. She committed suicide on 1994-FEB-12 in the supportive presence of her friend Svend Robinson, an NDP (Socialist) member of parliament. It is not known whether she required assistance in dying. Robinson and the attending physician were never charged with a crime.
 
bullet

1994: Nova Scotia: Brenda Barnes committed suicide by injecting herself with insulin. Her friend, Mary Jane Fogarty, helped Barnes by writing out a suicide note and providing the syringe. Barnes was found guilty of assisted suicide and given a suspended sentence.
 

bullet1997: Saskatchewan: A farmer, Robert Latimer, was tried for the mercy killing of his 12-year-old daughter who was mentally disabled, physically disabled, and in continual severe pain. He was found guilty of second degree murder which, under Canadian law, requires a 10 year minimum jail sentence. The jury recommended that he be eligible for parole after one year. The sentence was appealed through various courts. His request for a reduced sentence was unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada. This was a case of murder because his daughter was too young to give informed consent, and there is no indication in the media coverage that she had asked for help in dying.
 
bullet1998: Ontario: Maurice Genereux prescribed barbiturates for two men who were HIV positive. They used the medication to attempt suicide. Genereux was found guilty and sentenced to two years less a day. This was an unusual outcome; in almost all court cases the accused is either found not guilty or is given a suspended sentence.
 
bullet 2000: Ontario: Wayne Hussey tested a gun which his father later used to commit suicide. Wayne Hussey was charged, but found not guilty.
 
bullet 2003: British Columbia: Julianna Zsiros showed her housemate how to start a car, and made certain that the garage in which the car was located was airtight. Her housemate started the car in the enclosed space and committed suicide by breathing carbon monoxide fumes. Zsiros was charged, found guilty, and received a suspended sentence.
 
bullet2004: British Columbia: Evelyn Martens was present during the suicides of Monique Charest and Leyanne Burchell. Martens was charged but found not guilty.
 
bullet 2008: Quebec: "A jury acquitted Stéphan Dufour on a single charge of assisted suicide. Dufour had admitted that he installed a rope, chain and dog collar in a closet that his uncle, Chantal Maltais, used to kill himself in 2006-SEP. Dufour was the first Canadian to stand trial by jury for assisted suicide.

bullet 2010: Ontario: Peter Fonteece allegedly entered a suicide pace with his wife Yanisa. She killed herself by taking sleeping pills in his presence. She asked him to not intervene. He was charged with assisted suicide and criminal negligence causing death because he did not seek medical help at the time. The assisted suicide charge was dropped. He pleaded guilty to the remaining charge, served 70 days in jail, was released to a transitional house and finally sentenced to one year of probation.

bullet 2012: Ontario: Herbert Dills was charged with assisted suicide in the death of Brian Nelson (71). Nelson had suffered from unsuccessful back surgery several years earlier. Nelson asked Dills to help him commit suicide, but Dills claimed that he played no part in the death, which happened in the parking garage of Hamilton General Hospital.

bullet 2013: Alberta: Linda McNall and her mother, Shirley Vann, entered into a mutual suicide pact in a tent near Hinton west of Edmonton. Vann died but McNall survived and was charged with assisting a suicide. She was released and deported to Arizona after having served an 8 month in custody.

More information is available at the Right to Die Society of Canada's web site. 1

The future of PAS in Canada:

It is likely that some individual who is faced with a fatal degenerative disease will bring a similar case before the Supreme Court at some time in the future. It would have to be a slowly progressing disease or disorder like ALS, in order to give the individual time to allow her or his case to proceed through the court system. The Supreme Court might well overturn its 1993 ruling.

Alternately, a single federal law to enable PAS could be created and would apply throughout the country.  Private Members' bills have since been introduced into the Canadian Parliament to legalize PAS. They have all failed to become law.

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This topic continues with a discussion of polling data

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
 
  1. The Right-To-Die Society of Canada's web page is at: http://www.righttodie.ca/
  2. Deborah Gyapong, "Bloc MP tables 'die with dignity' Bill C-407," Canadian Catholic News, at: www.ccrl.ca/
  3. "Sue Rodriguez and the Right-to-Die debate," CBC Archives, at: http://archives.cbc.ca/
  4. Sue Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General) (1993) 3 SCR 519.
  5. J.V. Lavery & P.A. Singer, "The 'Supremes' decide on assisted suicide: What should a doctor do?," Canadian Medical Association Journal, (1997) 157:405-6. Online at: http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/

Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Assisted Suicide > here

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Copyright © 1999 to 2014, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2014-JAN-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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