The Carter ruling is correct, though I don’t agree with it

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Criminal Code provisions making assisted suicide illegal:

In a charter precedent that will go down in the history books as Carter vs. Canada, the court unanimously struck down the ban on providing a doctor-assisted death to mentally competent but suffering and “irremediable” patients.

The emphatic, unanimous ruling prompted tears of joy and frustration on both sides of the debate, reverberated through provincial health ministries and doctor’s offices across Canada, and left skittish federal parliamentarians groping for time to digest the implications.

“The prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes on the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,” the nine justices flatly asserted.

The judgment — left unsigned to reflect the unanimous institutional weight of the court — gives Parliament a year to draft new legislation that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help in ending their lives.

It does not limit physician-assisted death to those suffering a terminal illness.

And to put an exclamation mark on the ruling, the court awarded special costs against the government of Canada for the entire five-year course of the litigation, less 10 per cent to be paid by the government of British Columbia.

The court suspended its judgment for 12 months, during which the current law continues to apply, placing enormous pressure on Parliament to act in what is an election year.

(An aside: remember when Stephen Harphitler was going to pack the Supreme Court with Conservative loyalists who would rubber-stamp everything he did?  Didn’t quite work out that way, did it?)

I’m torn on the issue of assisted suicide.  I fundamentally believe a person should have the right to do what he wants with his body, and if you’re suffering from an incurable, terminal medical condition, I can understand why you’d want to end the misery on your own terms.

I also firmly believe that this starts the proverbial slippery slope toward extending this “right” to people who are not competent to make the decision to end their lives, young children, and that we will ultimately see people given the right to make end-of-life decisions for disabled people in their care.    (Indeed, supporters of Robert Latimer have been arguing for this ever since he took the life of his severely disabled daughter in 1993.)

Andrew Coyne argues that the Court did not seriously consider the implications of its ruling:

…on what grounds could any limit be placed on this right? Once we have embraced the idea of suicide, not as a tragedy we should seek to prevent, but a right we are obliged to uphold; once the taking of life has been converted from a crime into a service — “physician-assisted death” — to be performed at public expense; once we have crossed these sorts of philosophical and legal divides, how is it to be imagined that we could stop there?

The Court airily dismisses concerns that euthanasia will be expanded or abused, as it has been in those few jurisdictions where it has been legalized, as “anecdotal.” Very well. Perhaps the Court is right, that the “medico-legal culture” of Belgium, where assisted suicide is now provided to children and prisoners on demand, is different than Canada’s.

But it is not in the administration of the law that I fear we will see the “slippery slope” at work so much as it is in its interpretation. Perhaps the Court’s confidence that “safeguards” can be devised that will prevent the spread of euthanasia beyond the competently adult and the clearly consenting is well placed. But there can be no safeguard against the Court’s own future decisions.

Some day, someone is going to bring a case before the Court arguing that children with an incurable disease and in “intolerable” pain should also have the right to assisted suicide, perhaps with their parents’ consent. Is the Court really going to condemn them to endure years of excruciating pain until they are of age? Likewise, is it really prepared to leave the mentally incompetent to suffer unbearably, when with the signature of a legal guardian they could be released? Or if personal autonomy is all, why should a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” be required? Isn’t it enough that you want to be dead, but need someone to help?

So, I’m worried about what the Carter decision means.  And yet, paradoxically, I think the Court dealt with the slippery slope argument appropriately.

In deciding whether a law is unconstitutional, a Canadian court must then turn its attention to whether the infringement of a Charter right can be justified “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” as stated in section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In layman’s terms, it must be established that the offending law has an important, pressing societal objective, and that it carries out this objective by infringing upon the Charter rights as minimally as possible.

The Court notes, correctly, that “slippery slope” arguments are speculative by nature:

[118]                      Canada also argues that the permissive regulatory regime accepted by the trial judge “accepts too much risk”, and that its effectiveness is “speculative” (R.F., at para. 154).  In effect, Canada argues that a blanket prohibition should be upheld unless the appellants can demonstrate that an alternative approach eliminates all risk.  This effectively reverses the onus under s. 1 , requiring the claimant whose rights are infringed to prove less invasive ways of achieving the prohibition’s object.  The burden of establishing minimal impairment is on the government.

[119]                      The trial judge found that Canada had not discharged this burden.  The evidence, she concluded, did not support the contention that a blanket prohibition was necessary in order to substantially meet the government’s objectives.  We agree.  A theoretical or speculative fear cannot justify an absolute prohibition.  As Deschamps J. stated in Chaoulli, at para. 68, the claimant “d[oes] not have the burden of disproving every fear or every threat”, nor can the government meet its burden simply by asserting an adverse impact on the public.  Justification under s. 1  is a process of demonstration, not intuition or automatic deference to the government’s assertion of risk (RJR-MacDonald, at para. 128).

[120]                      Finally, it is argued that without an absolute prohibition on assisted dying, Canada will descend the slippery slope into euthanasia and condoned murder.  Anecdotal examples of controversial cases abroad were cited in support of this argument, only to be countered by anecdotal examples of systems that work well.  The resolution of the issue before us falls to be resolved not by competing anecdotes, but by the evidence.  The trial judge, after an exhaustive review of the evidence, rejected the argument that adoption of a regulatory regime would initiate a descent down a slippery slope into homicide.  We should not lightly assume that the regulatory regime will function defectively, nor should we assume that other criminal sanctions against the taking of lives will prove impotent against abuse.

In practice, I do not believe assisted suicide will be limited to those who care competent to request it.  But I concede that this is speculative, and that our courts may very well rule that this is something the disabled and the young should be protected from, not a right that should be extended to them whether we really know they want to exercise it.

“Slippery slope” arguments are considered logical fallacies, and court decisions should not be based on logical fallacies.  I think my fears about assisted suicide may be borne out, but they aren’t inevitable.  And if they aren’t inevitable, the Charter right is not minimally infringed upon.

I know this seems pretty confusing, but it’s a morally complex issue (dominated, like most morally complex social issues, by the loudest and most extreme voices on each side).  To summarize, by head agrees with the Carter ruling, though my heart is worried about it.

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One thought on “The Carter ruling is correct, though I don’t agree with it

  1. Of course, there is a clear divide: an individual has a right to decide what to do with his own life, even end it. No other person (family member, doctor, etc.) has the right to decide that for him, even if deemed incompetent, or horribly disabled, or whatever.

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