Waiting for Canada’s New Euthanasia Law

GEO_edited-1A perfectly healthy 24-year old woman in Belgium will be killed by her doctors only because she has “suicidal thoughts”. She does not suffer from any terminal disease or physical illness.

While Nazi Germany pioneered legal euthanasia, Switzerland was an early adopter, followed by Columbia in 1997, Holland in 2002 and Belgium in 2003. Belgium’s original law applied only to adults, but in February 2015 they extended the law to include children.

The United Kingdom’s Daily Mail quotes the woman as saying:

‘Death feels to me not as a choice. If I had a choice, I would choose a bearable life, but I have done everything and that was unsuccessful. I played all my life with these thoughts of suicide, I have also done a few attempts. But then there is someone who needs me, and I don’t want to hurt anyone. That has always stopped me.

Canada, of course, is never far behind when it comes to controversial social justice issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, legalized prostitution, and most recently, euthanasia.

In a historic decision this year, (Carter v. Canada) the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that desperately suffering patients have a constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide, giving the government twelve months to draft legislation.

The criteria established by the Court is that the person must be a consenting adult under a physician’s care, who cannot tolerate the physical or psychological suffering brought on by a severe, incurable illness, disease or disability.

Only last week the government indicated that because of the coming election it will need more time to draft appropriate laws, a situation that will not likely induce sympathy from the high court.

But Belgium’s data on euthanasia will undoubtedly be studied by the government as they shape the new law. Interesting statistics include the following:

1. Euthanasia deaths are increasing year over year. In 2011 there were 1,133 and in 2012 1,432, an increase of 25%. In 2013 1,816 were euthanized, an increase of 27% over 2012.

2. Of the total cases in 2013 51.7% were men, while 48.3% were women.

3. Persons aged between 70 and 90 years accounted for 53.5%, those aged 60 to 70 represented 21% and those over 90, 7%. Persons under 60 made up 15% of the total cases.

Most of Belgium’s euthanasia deaths attract no attention, however, there have been several media-worthy deaths, including the assisted suicides of 45-year-old Belgian twins, Mark and Eddy Verbessem.

The twins were deaf and conversed in sign language and had been told to expect to lose their sight, but there was no indication their condition was “medically futile” or their mental suffering at the prospects of becoming blind, could not be alleviated with appropriate medical treatment. Also recent was the euthanization of a transgendered Belgium man who applied because he was horrified at the way he looked after hormone therapy and surgery.

Whoever forms the next government in Canada will be saddled with the responsibility of crafting a law that allows terminally ill patients to die with dignity, while still ensuring that vulnerable adults are protected, a goal that has apparently eluded the Belgians.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang


Euthanasia: Are Children Next?

DSC00445_2 (1)When British Columbia Justice Lynn Smith declared that the Criminal Code’s provision against assisted suicide was unconstitutional, she reasoned that Parliament could create a system of assisted suicide that would protect the vulnerable and the mentally ill. She gave the federal government twelve months to enact new law.

It seems Belgium enacted such a law in 2002, but its “protective” features have failed miserably, a fact that has been exposed with the recent, legal, assisted suicides of 45-year-old Belgian twins, Mark and Eddy Verbessem.

Belgium’s legislation, The Belgium Act on Euthanasia, stipulates that a person seeking assisted suicide must be in a “medically futile condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that can not be alleviated, resulting from an incurable disorder caused by illness or accident.”

Based on the media coverage of the Verbessems’ suicide, it seems doubtful that the twins actually qualified under the legislation. It was reported that the twins feared institutionalization when they became blind.

Yes, they were deaf and conversed in sign language and yes, they had been told to expect to lose their sight, but there is no indication their condition was “medically futile” or their mental suffering at the prospects of becoming blind, could not be alleviated with appropriate medical treatment.

The Belgium law also compels a potential candidate for assisted suicide to obtain a second opinion from a psychiatrist or medical specialist, if the condition of the patient does not indicate imminent death as a result of their disorder. It is unknown whether this further layer of “protection” was provided to the Verbessem twins.

That the twin’s efforts to end it all was viewed with dubiety is apparent by the fact that after they recruited a local doctor, it took them two years to find a medical facility that would allow the lethal injection.

A few days after the twins died, the Socialist government of Belgium tabled a legal amendment which would permit children and Alzheimer’s patients to be euthanized as well.

If our Supreme Court agrees that the current Canadian law is unconstitutional, as they are predicted to rule, let’s hope that our federal government does a better job than the Belgians of applying the law.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Euthanasia: Is it a Form of Medical Treatment or Compassionate Murder?

Unbeknownst to most Canadians, last November and December, 24 lawyers gathered for 21 days in a Vancouver courtroom, engaged in a controversial case that saw the Governments of British Columbia and Canada pitted against three private individuals and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association in a face-off over doctor-assisted suicide.

Those who have followed Canada’s euthanasia debate will hearken back to the case of Sue Rodriguez, who in 1993 was unable to persuade the Supreme Court of Canada she had a right to die, despite her Lou Gehrig’s disease diagnosis. She later took her own life with the assistance of Member of Parliament Svend Robinson and a sympathetic doctor.

Government lawyers argued that the Rodriguez case had already determined the issue for Canadians and the 1993 decision was binding on all other Canadian courts. Not so, said the learned judge.

That was then, and much has changed, according to Madam Justice Lynn Smith of British Columbia’s Supreme Court who handed down a 395-page decision yesterday, (Carter v. Canada) declaring that Canada’s criminal law banning assisted suicide is contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and therefore unconstitutional.

It is important to remember that attempting to commit suicide is not illegal in Canada, although until 1972 it was. The only prohibition is against those who counsel a person to commit suicide or aid and abet a suicide.

So why was Ms. Rodriguez prevented from accessing assistance to end her life, while Gloria Taylor, also suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease and the main plaintiff in Carter v. Canada, will now be able to do so?

Since the early 90’s the “dying with dignity” movement has steamrolled across North America and Europe. Oregon State enacted their “Death with Dignity Act” in 1994, as a result of a citizen initiative that saw a referendum vote of 51% in favour of assisted suicide.

Columbia enacted their laws permitting assisted suicide in 1997, followed by Holland and Belgium in 2002, Washington State in 2008 and Luxembourg in 2009. Montana State has no law but accepts the defense of necessity if a physician is charged with homicide as a result of an assisted suicide.

However, Switzerland remains the “grandmother” of assisted suicide as it enacted legislation in 1937 that only considers assisted suicide a crime if the assistant has a selfish motive. Given Switzerland’s early entry in this field, it is the most popular choice for “tourism suicide”, a phenomenon that induced Lee Carter to sign on as a plaintiff in Carter v. Canada.

She told the court that she and her husband facilitated her 89-year-old mother’s travel to Switzerland to avail herself of the services of DIGNITAS, a Swiss organization that assists non-residents to end their lives. In 2010 DIGNITAS took part in 97 assisted suicides, five were Canadians. Ms. Carter’s mother spent over $30,000 to end her life and Ms. Carter lives with the pressure that her activities were in breach of Canadian law.

DIGNITAS is only one of many organizations world-wide that provide “Right-to Die” information and counseling. As well, since 1991 no fewer than nine private members bills seeking to legalize assisted suicide have been introduced into the House of Commons.

The proliferation of legal assisted suicide has brought with it scientific scrutiny of data available from suicide clinics world-wide, research that tends to dismiss the concerns that were voiced during the Rodriguez case and were repeated by government lawyers in Carter v. Canada.

Madam Justice Smith heard from dozens of medical and ethics experts and determined that Parliament can create a system of assisted suicide that will take into account appropriate safeguards to protect the vulnerable and those with mental illness.

In addition, the interpretive provisions of the Charter have grown and developed in Charter cases decided by the Supreme Court of Canada since 1993, introducing legal concepts that gave Madam Justice Smith additional tools in the exercise of assessing the constitutionality of the law.

As in most Charter cases, the government was given twelve months to enact legislation that does not breach the Charter, however, Gloria Taylor received a special exemption that granted her the right to avail herself of a physician assisted suicide at any time.

You can expect the British Columbia Court of Appeal to weigh in on this decision unless the Governments of British Columbia and Canada consider themselves “dead in the water”.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang