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How Assisted Suicide Would Change Canada’s Legal Landscape

Many persuasive arguments have been made against physician-assisted suicide since Bill C-384, which seeks to decriminalize assisted suicide, was first introduced in the House of Commons in the spring.

Concern has been expressed about the slippery slope effect that will lead to ‘involuntary suicides,’ as has occurred in other jurisdictions where assisted suicide has been legalized. Various groups have argued that legalization of assisted suicide will put pressure on the elderly or disabled to prematurely end their lives. Still others, that it will put pressure on physicians to balance the budget by freeing up hospital beds.  Several contend that  the very concept disregards the sanctity and dignity of human life.

I share these concerns. In the process of objection, few have commented about the impact this proposed bill will have on Canadian law, if passed. Whether that has been an oversight or whether it is a concern that is taken for granted, it’s an important point to consider, and one for policy-makers to understand before they vote for or against this bill on December 2.

The right to assisted suicide must lead, in practice and in law, to an obligation on the part of one party to kill another. This turns the life affirming principles of Canadian law on their collective head.

Canada’s Criminal Code is a testimony to this life affirming ethos; causing bodily harm with wanton or reckless disregard for the life or safety of another – or intentionally –  is a punishable offence under the law. This is why we have provincial and federal laws in place to regulate highway speeds, environmental, health and safety matters as well as personal treatment of others. Assisted suicide is contrary to Canada’s social, moral and philosophical traditions.

The government (through the action of the military or police) does  retain the power, in very specific and limited circumstances, to use lethal force, and only when required in order to protect life. And the use of “deadly force” is documented and investigated when used by these law enforcement bodies.

Given this foundational respect for life, the moment that the right to end a life is granted to parties other than law enforcement agencies, our country and its legal system will be dramatically and irrevocably changed forever. According to Leon Kass, former Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics,

First, the right to die, especially as it comes to embrace a right to aid-in-dying or assisted suicide, or euthanasia, will translate into an obligation on the part of others to kill or help kill. Even if we refuse to impose such a duty but merely allow those to practice it who are freely willing, our society would be dramatically altered.

Many groups, including the Law Reform Commission of Canada, recognize the grave danger of introducing such a principle into Canadian law that would only serve to “indirectly condone murder”.

Once accepted into Canadian law that killing is permissible in certain circumstances, this principle will be used to justify other murders. This is the way common law, “judge-made law”, evolves – a judge is required to follow the decisions of previous judges. When a judge is faced with a circumstance that is similar to another, he or she is required to render a similar decision. This is intended to ensure that justice is applied equally to all.

Had assisted suicide been decriminalized when Robert Latimer killed his disabled daughter, Tracy, it’s very possible  the Supreme Court of Canada would have acquitted him of  this murder. It would have been logical to apply the principle that a third party can kill a terminally ill patient to give Mr. Latimer an acceptable defence to the charge of murdering  his severely disabled daughter.

Further, there is no right to commit suicide that can be found in human rights or constitutional law. While many claim such a right does or should exist, it would fly in the face of the life affirming principles of section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which seeks to guarantee the protection of life, liberty and security of the person. What we have in Canada is a compassionate response to those who have attempted suicide by no criminalization of their efforts. At the same time, we do criminalize the efforts of others to encourage or assist someone in ending their life.

Further still, if the right to self-determination to the point of death did in fact exist in Canadian law, how could we justify that it be extended to require another person to end a life? How can we mandate another person to deal with the potential consequences (be they psychological or emotional) of taking another person’s life? This argument stretches the boundaries of reason and logic.

In today’s Canada, it is perfectly lawful for a person to end their medical treatment and to refuse life support in order to die naturally. Euthanasia and assisted suicide occur when human intervention intentionally leads to an unnatural or pre-natural death.

Should this bill be passed, Canadians will be left to live in a society that endorses private killings between its citizens. Killing another person would become a matter of personal contract rather than a rarely called upon measure undertaken by the state in extraordinary circumstances. Life and death would be spelled out by means of a written agreement.

Assisted suicide advocates cannot claim that this is simply a private, personal decision. It implicates every citizen and every Canadian institution of government and health care. It requires substantive changes to our legal philosophy. It transforms the Canadian concept of the dignity of human life.

In the words of Thomas G. Daily, to decriminalize assisted suicide “is to give away precisely what makes us human, our freedom and life, and to give another that which they should not have, power over the freedom and life of another.”


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