|Dr. Will Johnston|
On June 15, the British Columbia Supreme Court rendered a controversial judgment in the case of Carter vs. Canada, one that purports to create constitutional immunity for those who provide assistance to those seeking to kill themselves — a judgment that stands at odds with the Supreme Court of Canada’s Rodriguez ruling in 1993. The only saving grace is that doctors will not be scribbling lethal prescriptions any day soon: Current law will stand for at least a year (the sole exception being the plaintiff in this case, 64-year-old ALS patient Gloria Taylor). Let us hope that a higher court restores sanity to the issue before this 12-month period expires.
Justice Lynn Smith determined that the ban against assisted suicide serves to discriminate against the disabled — and therefore runs afoul of the equality provisions in section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — because it prevents disabled people from getting the help they may need to kill themselves. But the Charter is meant to defend us against violations perpetrated by the state, not abet self-inflicted injuries or death.
Fighting suicide is a national policy. Suicide is strongly discouraged by all manner of health professionals, and some suicidal people are, by law, forcibly hospitalized for assessment and treatment. Yet, in the Carter decision, much is made of the idea that, since suicide is not actually illegal, it is unfair that the disabled who are unable to kill themselves are deprived of the help they need in doing so. Having measles is not against the law either, but most would call it an odd leap of logic to suggest that catching measles should be a constitutional right and that people too disabled to get themselves off to a measles epidemic must be given physician-assisted infection.
In Carter, the judge adopts what my experience tells me is a delusion: That a bright enough line can be drawn between those with identifiable physical ailments who want to die — candidates for “acceptable” assisted suicide — and those who are just depressed or psychotic.
Many of those who reject capital punishment on the chance that one innocent person might be executed have noticed that even the intense scrutiny of a murder trial can fail to get the facts right. Yet when it comes to assisted suicide and euthanasia, the Carter judgment claims that the risks associated with killing someone in an “unacceptable” state of depression or psychosis can be adequately managed.
The reality is that, in liberal foreign jurisdictions admired as models in the Carter decision, literally thousands of assisted suicides happen without the documented consent of those killed. Rules are ignored or become empty rituals. The Carter judgment appears to either misinterpret these deaths, or wave them off as acceptable collateral damage in the pursuit of personal choice and autonomy.
Most Canadians are easily confused by the distinction between refusing or withdrawing medical therapy, and intentional killing of the patient; and Carter contributes to this confusion. For instance, in one paragraph, a false parallel is drawn between a criminal failure to act, which leads to harm, and the doctor’s act of stepping aside when therapy is futile or refused. Common sense tells us that the disease kills the patient, not the doctor who was trying to help, and who is forbidden by law from imposing help when it is not wanted.
Overall, the Carter judgment provides 395 pages of reasons to justify a reckless social experiment that would be difficult to reverse, while dismissing the warnings that all is not well in the places that already have implemented such policies. Based on my 31 years of front-line medical experience, I urge Canadians to be very skeptical about going down this road.
Will Johnston is a Vancouver G.P., and chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C.