Supreme Court of Canada Decision – Dying with Dignity

On February 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada, by unanimous decision, released its decision in Carter v. Canada to determine the constitutionality of the Criminal Code provision that prohibits an individual assisting another in taking his/her life.

The Supreme Court struck down s. 241 of the Criminal Code as they felt that this section violates s. 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was not saved by s.1 of the Charter as being a reasonable limit prescribed law in a free and democratic society.

The Supreme Court decided to suspend the impact of its decision for one year and that there would be no exemptions during this period. The purpose of a suspension is to allow legislators in Parliament the opportunity to frame a new Criminal Code provision to replace that which was suspended by this decision. The practical effect is that s. 241 would not be enforced during the suspension period. It does create, however, a profound problem for physicians who are ethically bound to protect the sanctity of life. Who makes the decision? When is the decision made? What happens when the interests of the family, physician, culture and patient don’t intersect?

Rest assured, legislators will have a difficult time dealing with this issue, particularly in an election year. Physicians will have an even more difficult time in drawing appropriate guidelines for dealing with this sensitive issue.