Carter v Canada (Attorney General); 15 Jun 2012

Links: Canlii
Coram: The Honourable Madam Justice Lynn Smith
Supreme Court of British Columbia – [1] The plaintiffs have challenged the Criminal Code of Canada provisions prohibiting physician-assisted dying, relying on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the Reasons for Judgment that follow, I describe the evidence and legal arguments that have led me to conclude that the plaintiffs succeed in their challenge. They succeed because the provisions unjustifiably infringe the equality rights of Gloria Taylor and the rights to life, liberty and security of the person of Gloria Taylor, Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson.
[2] Under s. 52 of the Constitution Act, the provisions are declared invalid, but the operation of that declaration is suspended for one year. During the period of suspension, a constitutional exemption will permit Ms. Taylor the option of physician-assisted death under a number of conditions.
[3] I will summarize, in brief, my findings of fact and legal reasoning.
[4] Palliative care, though far from universally available in Canada, continues to improve in its ability to relieve suffering. However, even the very best palliative care cannot alleviate all suffering, except possibly through sedation to the point of persistent unconsciousness (palliative sedation).
[5] Currently accepted and legal end-of-life practices in Canada allow physicians to follow patients’ or substitute decision-makers’ instructions to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment from patients. Accepted practices also allow physicians to administer medications even in dosages that may hasten death, and to administer palliative sedation. Ethicists and medical practitioners widely concur that current legal end-of-life practices are ethically acceptable. Some of these currently accepted practices bear similarities to physician-assisted death, but opinions differ as to whether they are ethically on a different footing.
[6] Medical practitioners disagree about the ethics of physician-assisted death. There are respected practitioners who would support legal change. They state that providing physician-assisted death in defined cases, with safeguards, would be consistent with their ethical views. However, other practitioners and many professional bodies, including the Canadian Medical Association, do not support physician-assisted death.
[7] Despite a strong societal consensus about the extremely high value of human life, public opinion is divided regarding physician-assisted death. The substantial majority of committees that have studied the question, in Canada and elsewhere, oppose physician-assisted death but a minority support it.
[8] The most commonly expressed reason for maintaining a distinction between currently accepted end-of-life practices and physician-assisted death is that any system of safeguards will not adequately protect vulnerable people.
[9] Most Western countries do not permit physician-assisted dying or assisted dying, but a few do (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland). Three of the United States permit physician-assisted dying, in the case of Oregon and Washington through legislation. The jurisdictions that permit physician-assisted dying have created safeguards to ensure that only defined categories of patients are involved, and that protocols including second opinions and reporting requirements are followed. Research findings show differing levels of compliance with the safeguards and protocols in permissive jurisdictions. No evidence of inordinate impact on vulnerable populations appears in the research. Finally, the research does not clearly show either a negative or a positive impact in permissive jurisdictions on the availability of palliative care or on the physician-patient relationship.
[10] The defendants identify a number of areas of risk for patients if physician-assisted death is permitted, for example relating to the patients’ ability to make well-informed decisions and their freedom from coercion or undue influence, and to physicians’ ability to assess patients’ capacity and voluntariness. The evidence shows that risks exist, but that they can be very largely avoided through carefully-designed, well-monitored safeguards.
[11] I turn to the legal issues.
[12] The Supreme Court of Canada Rodriguez decision from 1993 is a binding authority with respect to certain aspects of the plaintiffs’ claims.
[13] Rodriguez decides that s. 241(b) of the Criminal Code (the assisted suicide prohibition) engages Ms. Taylor’s rights to security of the person and liberty under s. 7 of the Charter, and that the legislation is not arbitrary. It leaves open whether the legislation infringes Ms. Taylor’s right to life. Further, it does not decide whether any of the plaintiffs has been deprived of s. 7 rights through legislation that is not in accordance with two principles of fundamental justice that had not yet been identified as such when Rodriguez was decided. Those are the principles that laws must not be overbroad, and that laws must not be grossly disproportionate.
[14] Rodriguez does not determine whether s. 241(b) of the Criminal Code infringes Ms. Taylor’s equality rights under s. 15 of the Charter. The majority in Rodriguez concluded that, if there was an infringement of s. 15 (a question it did not decide), the infringement constituted a reasonable limit and was demonstrably justified under s. 1 of the Charter. Because the analytical approach to s. 1 of the Charter has been modified since Rodriguez, I have addressed the question of s. 1 justification on the evidentiary record in this case.
[15] The claim that the legislation infringes Ms. Taylor’s equality rights begins with the fact that the law does not prohibit suicide. However, persons who are physically disabled such that they cannot commit suicide without help are denied that option, because s. 241(b) prohibits assisted suicide. The provisions regarding assisted suicide have a more burdensome effect on persons with physical disabilities than on able-bodied persons, and thereby create, in effect, a distinction based on physical disability. The impact of the distinction is felt particularly acutely by persons such as Ms. Taylor, who are grievously and irremediably ill, physically disabled or soon to become so, mentally competent, and who wish to have some control over their circumstances at the end of their lives. The distinction is discriminatory, under the test explained by the Supreme Court of Canada in Withler, because it perpetuates disadvantage.
[16] The legislation’s infringement of s. 15 equality rights is not demonstrably justified under s. 1 of the Charter. The purpose of the absolute prohibition against physician-assisted suicide, as determined by Rodriguez, is to prevent vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at times of weakness. That purpose is pressing and substantial and the absolute prohibition against assisted suicide is rationally connected to it. However, a less drastic means of achieving the legislative purpose would be to keep an almost-absolute prohibition in place with a stringently limited, carefully monitored system of exceptions allowing persons in Ms. Taylor’s situation – grievously and irremediably ill adult persons who are competent, fully-informed, non-ambivalent and free from coercion or duress – to access physician-assisted death. Thus, the legislation does not impair Ms. Taylor’s equality rights as little as possible. Further, the legislation has very severe adverse effects on Ms. Taylor and others in her situation, that are not outweighed by its benefits. For those reasons, and despite affording due deference to Parliament, I conclude that the legislation’s absolute prohibition falls outside the bounds of constitutionality.
[17] The claimed infringement of s. 7 rights differs as among the plaintiffs. With respect to Ms. Taylor, the legislation affects her rights to liberty and security of the person, as was found in Rodriguez. In addition, the legislation affects her right to life because it may shorten her life. Ms. Taylor’s reduced lifespan would occur if she concludes that she needs to take her own life while she is still physically able to do so, at an earlier date than she would find necessary if she could be assisted. With respect to Ms. Carter and Mr. Johnson, the legislation affects their rights to liberty because they are at risk of incarceration, at least in theory, for having helped a loved one who obtained assisted death in Switzerland.
[18] The legislation deprives the plaintiffs of their s. 7 rights inconsistently with the principles of fundamental justice. First, the legislation is overbroad. Second, the legislative response – an absolute prohibition – is grossly disproportionate to the objectives it is meant to accomplish. As with the s. 15 infringement, the s. 7 infringement would not be justified under s. 1.
[19] The declaration of invalidity is suspended for one year in order to permit Parliament to take whatever steps it sees fit to draft and consider legislation. For one of the successful plaintiffs, Gloria Taylor, to have an effective remedy, she must be granted a constitutional exemption during the period of suspension. She will be permitted to seek, and her physician will be permitted to proceed with, physician-assisted death under specified conditions.