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.