A British Columbia Supreme Court judge has declared Canada's laws against physician-assisted suicide unconstitutional because they discriminate against the physically disabled.
In a 395-page ruling released Friday, Justice Lynn Smith addressed the situation faced by Gloria Taylor, a B.C. woman who was one of five plaintiffs in the case seeking the legal right to doctor-assisted suicide.
Taylor has ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disease, and she sought the ruling to allow her doctor to help her end her life before she becomes incapacitated. The case was fast-tracked in August because of her illness.
In her ruling, Smith noted suicide itself is not illegal, and therefore the law against assisted suicide contravenes Section 15 of the charter, which guarantees equality, because it denies physically disabled people like Taylor the same rights as able-bodied people who can take their own lives, she ruled.
"The impact of that 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," Smith writes.
"The distinction is discriminatory … because it perpetuates disadvantage."
Smith also says the law deprives both people like Taylor and those who try to help them of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Section 7 of the charter.
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She argued the legislation could force a person to take their life sooner than they want to in order to kill themselves while still physically capable.
And Smith says the risk of incarceration denies the right of freedom to relatives who assist by taking their loved ones to jurisdictions where physician-assisted suicide is legal.
The effect of the ruling will not be immediate, because Smith suspended it for one year in order to give Parliament time to take whatever steps it sees fit to draft and consider new legislation.
But in the meantime, Smith granted Taylor a constitutional exception to seek physician-assisted suicide if she chooses to end her life.
Gloria Taylor, of West Kelowna, B.C., asked the province's Supreme Court for the right to take her own life with a doctor's help as her health fades because of ALS. (CBC)
The ruling will, if it stands up to an appeal, put Canada in the company of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, countries which permit physician-assisted suicide. Three states in the U.S. also allow the practice.
Smith's ruling also addresses the risks raised by defendants in the case.
"The evidence shows that risks exist," she wrote. "But that they can be very largely avoided through carefully designed, well-monitored safeguards."
At the end of the decision, Smith also stipulates that her ruling only apply to "competent, fully informed, non-ambivalent adult persons who personally (not through a substituted decision-maker) request physician-assisted death, are free from coercion and undue influence and are not clinically depressed."