Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An introduction - Euthanasia in the Law

This blog has been created to provide a potential avenue for debate about the legal, moral and cultural aspects of euthanasia in Canada. This issue has undoubtedly captured the attention of many Canadians but it is the authors experience that many remain yet uninformed about the circumstances and moral issues at stake. People generally react to this issue from a more instinctual and emotive place, and rightly so, as such an issue should evoke a strong reaction from the individual. However, often this strong reaction biases people to quickly and they are often unable to approach the issue with a mind open to the different moral issues at stake.

This issue in fact brings into focus several powerful and competing values in our society, which in many ways have been enshrined in our laws. In 1993 the supreme court case of Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General) caused Canadians suddenly became aware as to how these values had manifested themselves in the law and of their intrinsic contradictions.

Sue Rodriguez was a woman suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and was seeking physician assisted suicide (which some individuals argue is distinct from euthanasia). Specific sections of the criminal code prevented doctors from helping her commit suicide so she challenged them under sections 7, 12, and 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A quick overview of these specific sections will help introduce the reader to some of the fundamental aspects of the debate around the issue of euthanasia.

There are three sections of the Canadian Criminal Code that are most relevant:

"14. No person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him, and such consent does not affect the criminal responsibility of any person by whom death may be inflicted on the person by whom consent is given.
"241. Everyone who counsels a person to commit suicide or aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years."
215."... every one is under a legal duty to provide necessaries of life to a person under his charge if that person is unable, by reason of (...) illness, mental disorder or other cause, to withdraw himself from that charge and is unable to provide himself with the necessaries of life."

These sections of the Canadian Criminal Code reflect one of the more pervasive values in Canadian society, the sacredness of life. The sacredness of life in this case evinces itself through societies long standing prohibitions against suicide under any circumstances. Additionally it is interesting to note that the Criminal Code even goes so far as to outlaw passive euthanasia, the withdrawing of life sustaining care (215).

As was stated before these sections were challenged in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General) under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The relevant sections are as follows:

Section 7. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

Section 12. Everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.

Section 15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

The chief and most important challenge related to Section 7 of the Charter and that was given the most weight in the decision by the supreme court. This section of the Charter outlines the deeply held Canadian value of autonomy and the right of a person to be free from the interference of outside sources (although obviously there are some exceptions to this). This might be considered the other major force in the conflict of our values. For many people this decision boils down to the question: Which value, the sacredness of life or the right to personal autonomy, has primacy over the other one?

At this point in the interest of brevity (ha) we will not do a rigorous analysis of the reasoning the court applied to the decision, we instead invite the reader to respond with their own thoughts regarding these laws and their possible interactions.

One might also consider the issues that treating this from a legal standpoint raises. For instance, how far or to what extent should our laws be used to enforce moral positions in society? This issue has an understandably strong moral undercurrent, and causes us to examine the role of law in enforcing these standards. Many people believe that euthanasia should be prohibited or allowed for moral reasons, so it is imperative that we consider this role for law in the moral realm.


Greg said...

If I want to kill myself I should damn well be able to. Sure it may hurt others aside from myself and damage the fabric of society ... When parents give birth, they accept the risk that their children may turn out fucked up and that, while they can influence the outcome, ultimately it's out of their control. Same thing with subjects in a free society -- society raises us and gives us privileges, but paternalism can only be allowed to go so far. My body, my choice. If I kill someone you can lock me up. If you wanna stop me from killing myself then go ahead and lock me up too or stay out of my way. Don't play games by writing laws to stop those who are trying to help.

LLJJ said...

Hey, thanks for commenting.

I think your opinion really illustrates one of the fundamental tensions that exists around this issue (the one I was talking about in the post). That is the tension between the sanctity of life and the desire for personal autonomy.

It seems to me that to some extent you believe that personal autonomy trumps the sanctity of life in this case. And I don't think this is an uncommon trend in society right now. Admittedly this is just personal experience, but everyone I have talked to about this blog has told me that they generally believe euthanasia is appropriate in some circumstances.

I was puzzled for a while as to why this is , since as you may read above (in another post) the supreme court decision did not reflect this trend. The answer I have come up with (although it is not complete) is that people are becoming more and more aware of quality of life issues. Increases in medical technology over the past decades have lead to increasingly high rates of individuals being artificially kept alive, beyond what many people feel is natural. I think that experiencing this with a family member really shifts your perspective, when you see the extent of their suffering. When they can no longer do any of the things that made them the person they are, one starts to wonder if a large part of them has already died. I think that under these circumstances, people begin to see someone as being more justified in asking for someone to end their life.