Court's assisted-suicide ruling raises prospect of 'kill at will'

This opinion article by Peter Stockland first appeared in the Calgary Herald and looks at the significant problems with e Canadian Supreme Court's recent decision. 

The belief has grown since last Friday's Supreme Court of Canada decision that we will have legalized doctor-assisted suicide by next year.

It's a terribly mistaken assumption. We might have doctor-assisted suicide. We might just as easily have doctor, lawyer and local Hell's Angel chieftain assisted suicide.

We might have an entirely lawless Canada as far as assisted suicide is concerned, what Calgary lawyer Gerry Chipeur refers to as "no country for old men." Or middle-aged women. Or possibly even young children.

The misunderstanding of what might come arises from confusion over what the Supreme Court of Canada really decided. The idea has quickly taken hold that it struck down a law prohibiting doctors from assisting at suicides. It did not. It invalidated a law that prevents "everyone" - everyone - from assisting another person to commit suicide. The law also forbids anyone - anyone - from asking another person for help to commit suicide.

There is nothing in Section 241 of the federal Criminal Code about doctors. Doctors pop up as if by magic in the Supreme Court decision because the justices mystically discovered in the Charter of Rights an inherent right for Canadians to ask to be killed under the right conditions. Why doctors enter into it is not actually specified in the decision. The court appears to just assume they must be involved.

It does not, however, direct Parliament on how to draft the law or how to structure the regulatory regime for assisted suicide, beyond stipulating that the right to ask to be killed hinges on "a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering intolerable to the individual…."

It gives Parliament a year to come up with the new legislation, during which time the existing law remains valid. Beyond that: "The (court's) declaration simply renders the criminal prohibition invalid."

As Chipeur says, there is a huge assumption that Parliament can pass an extremely complex bill and have a regulatory regime in place by Feb. 7, 2016. During an election year. When Parliament has voted six times since 1993 against legalizing assisted suicide or euthanasia.

The prospects for a difficult passage are real. And what if the legislation doesn't pass in 12 months? There will be no law against assisted suicide in Canada. Not for doctors. Not for veterinarians. Not for any remaining geriatric members of the National Public Hangman's Union, who have basically been unemployed since 1962.

"It will be kill at will," says Chipeur, who argued in the Supreme Court for keeping the existing law on the books. "If Parliament does not act, everyone will be able to assist anyone to commit suicide."

He sees as an entirely realistic risk a repeat of the 1988 Morgentaler fiasco. At the time, the Supreme Court struck down Canada's abortion law with the expectation Parliament would pass legislation limiting the procedure. That was 27 years ago. The last attempt to pass a law failed 24 years ago on a tie vote in a Parliament controlled by a Progressive Conservative majority government. Will history repeat?

Chipeur, an eternal optimist, sees light rather than just a freight train coming. The genuine danger Canadians face should focus us on the task of helping our MPs draft a law so stringent that assisted suicide will effectively exist in name only, he says.

"If we don't, we are putting all of our lives at risk. We are all, at some point, going to be at a stage in life where we are vulnerable. And we are going to be in a position where anyone can kill anyone. I don't believe that's what anyone really wants."

Let's hope that is the belief that turns out to be true.

Peter Stockland is the publisher of Convivium magazine for the think-tank Cardus.