In a 9-0 ruling the Supreme Court of Canada struck down two sections of Canada’s Criminal Code “insofar as they prohibit physician-assisted death” in circumstances outlined by the Court. It appears that most or all of the major media outlets understood this to mean that the Court had legalized physician assisted suicide.
In fact, the Court has authorized physicians not only to help eligible patients commit suicide, but to kill them – whether or not they are capable of suicide. The ruling permits both physician assisted suicide and physician administered euthanasia in the case of competent adults who have who have clearly consented to being killed, and who have a grievous irremediable medical condition “including an illness, disease or disability” that causes “enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual.”
The Court limited its ruling to the facts of the Carter case, but offered no opinion “on other situations” where physicians might be asked to kill patients or help them commit suicide. It is highly likely that the parameters set by the Court in Carter will be expanded in federal or provincial laws or in later litigation. It would certainly be a serious mistake to presume that the goalposts set in Carter will not be moved.
Even where euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal, most physicians are unwilling to do what the Supreme Court of Canada now expects Canadian physicians to do: lethally inject patients and write prescriptions for lethal medications.
However, acknowledging the joint intervention of the Protection of Conscience Project, Catholic Civil Rights League and Faith and Freedom Alliance and submissions by others, including the Canadian Medical Association, the Court stated: “In our view, nothing in the declaration of invalidity which we propose to issue would compel physicians to provide assistance in dying.”
The judges noted that “a physician’s decision to participate in assisted dying is a matter of conscience and, in some cases, of religious belief,” and that “the Charter rights of patients and physicians will need to be reconciled.”
Unfortunately, euthanasia activists understand “reconciliation” to mean that physicians unwilling to kill patients or help them kill themselves should be forced to refer them to a colleague willing to do so. This is the view of Dr. James Downar, a Toronto palliative care physician, who told the Canadian Medical Association Journal that it is critical to ensure all Canadians have access to “physician assisted dying.”
Commenting on the remarks attributed to Dr. Downar, Protection of Conscience Project Administrator Sean Murphy noted that many other palliative care physicians were concerned about ensuring access to palliative care, not finding physicians willing to kill patients.
“They certainly aren’t inclined to force colleagues to participate in assisted suicide and euthanasia,” he said. “Quite the contrary: many would refuse to direct patients to physicians willing to kill them or help them commit suicide.”
“Carter is not the last word on the euthanasia, assisted suicide and freedom of conscience,” he added, “but only the first of many to come.”
Sean Murphy is the administrator of the Protection of Conscience Project. The Protection of Conscience Project supports health care workers who want to provide the best care for their patients without violating their own personal and professional integrity. This has been republished from the website.