Medical Help to Die: How the Supreme Court’s Decision Changes Things

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On February 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada made an important decision on giving medical help to die. The decision will affect Quebec, where a law called An Act respecting end-of-life care was adopted in June 2014.

Why This Decision Is Important

The Supreme Court said that the sections of the Criminal Code that make it a crime to give someone medical help to die don't apply in some situations. The decision will let governments in Canada create a procedure to give people medical help to die.

How the Supreme Court Reached its Decision

In Canada the Criminal Code says that helping a person to die is a crime, even if the help is given by a doctor. The Supreme Court decided that this complete ban on giving medical help to die is wrong. The Court said the ban doesn't apply to adults who are able to make a clear and informed choice in the following situations:

  • The person has serious and incurable health problems that cause constant and unbearable suffering.

AND

  • The person clearly gives his or her consent to die. 

The Supreme Court said that the reason for the ban on giving medical help to die is to prevent someone from influencing a vulnerable person to commit suicide in a moment of weakness. But a complete ban is not necessary. These are some of the Supreme Court's reasons:

  • A complete ban could lead some people to end their lives too soon. This is because they might be afraid that they wouldn't be able to end their lives later on when their suffering becomes unbearable.

AND

  • A complete ban also prevents people dealing with unbearable and incurable suffering from choosing how to spend the end of their lives. Because of this, the ban takes away their constitutional right to liberty and security.

The Supreme Court Struck Down the Total Ban on Assisted Suicide

The Supreme Court's decision

  • does not say that doctors must help their patients to die, and
  • does not put in place a procedure for giving medical help to die.

It's up to governments in Canada to create a procedure for giving a person medical help to die.

Important!

The Supreme Court's decision doesn't take effect for another year. Until then, helping a person to die is still a crime that can lead to a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

Quebec's Law on End-of-Life Care

The decision of the Supreme Court will definitely affect any court cases that challenge Quebec's law on end-of-life care. The Quebec law was adopted in 2014 and comes into force at the end of 2015. The law lets a person get medical help to die in some cases.

Some people argue that Quebec is not allowed to make a law like this because the law interferes with the federal government's authority in the area of criminal law. They also say that the Quebec law is not legal because the Criminal Code makes it a crime to give medical help to die. But it's this complete ban on giving medical to die that the Supreme Court said is wrong.