Assisted Suicide, Discrimination, and the Constitution

The Death of Socrates

Suicide is a difficult case. I do not believe that people, under most circumstances, have a moral right to unilaterally kill themselves. An individual’s life is not the sole property of the individual; it belongs also to her or his loved ones, to all who are deeply affected by such an irreversible decision.

But does that mean that suicide ought to be illegal? The state, with one-size-fits-all statutes at its disposal, is not well-suited to govern over such a heavily context-dependent arena. To do so would set a disturbing precedent of public involvement in a profoundly personal matter. This debate is largely moot here in Canada where, contrary to what many believe, there is no law preventing a person from taking her or his life. And despite my misgivings, that is probably for the best.

What is prohibited in Canada, curiously, is assisted suicide — or at least, it was.

In a case brought by Gloria Taylor, who suffers from ALS and wants the right to die at a time of her own choosing, the Supreme Court of British Columbia yesterday struck down the federal ban on physician-assisted suicide. Justice Lynn Smith gave Parliament one year to draft new legislation on the grounds that the current ban violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, not surprisingly citing the Section 7 guarantee of the right to life and liberty.

Interestingly, Smith also cites the equality rights of Section 15. The issue of assisted suicide is relevant not to those able-bodied individuals who are tragically inclined to overreact to temporary setbacks, but to the sick and the physically disabled — those who spend their lives in agony. Often in consultation with their loved ones, people in these conditions may come to the conclusion that there is only one way out — and nobody can rightfully judge them for doing so. Unfortunately, such people are frequently incapable of carrying out their free and informed decisions without a doctor’s help. For this reason, says Smith, to ban assisted suicide is to discriminate against the disabled. Furthermore, it may even perversely encourage those with deteriorating conditions to rush their suicides while they still have the ability.

A person’s death is never something to celebrate, but we should not go to despotic lengths to prevent it from coming about. Under some circumstances, it can be necessary. This does not mean that all or even most suicides are okay. But to make only assisted suicides illegal is, absurdly, to criminalize those suicides which, with the right safeguards in place, are the most morally defensible. Justice Smith has issued a ruling of compassion and respect for individual freedom, and I hope that the higher courts see things the same way on appeal.

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