In a brief, powerful opening paragraph, the court explained why it was creating a new constitutional right to autonomy over one’s death in some circumstances: Those who are severely and irremediably suffering, whether physically or psychologically, “may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering” by the government’s absolute ban on assisted dying. “A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel.”
The decision was signed by The Court, which happens occasionally when the justices wish to lend their decisions extra weight. The nine judges, who range in age from mid-50s to 74, dismissed the notion that competent adults cannot consent to their death. “We do not agree that the existential formulation of the right to life requires an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying, or that individuals cannot ‘waive’ their right to life. This would create a ‘duty to live,’” the ruling says.
The court decision puts Canada in the company of a small group of countries such as Belgium – and U.S. states Washington and Oregon – that permit doctor-assisted death. And it gives the Conservative government difficult choices as it heads toward an election expected in the fall. The court suspended its ruling for 12 months to allow for new rules and laws to be drafted, but Ottawa could choose to do nothing, and allow provinces and medical regulatory bodies to create the ground rules for assisted death. Or it could do what it did when the Supreme Court struck down prostitution laws 14 months ago: study international models and then create a uniquely Canadian version that may or may not respect the principles established by the court.