Dying in Court

by Peter Singer Peter Singer is Professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books includeAnimal Liberation, Practical Ethics, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save. 19.07.2012

Introduction

Gloria Taylor, a Canadian, has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Over a period of a few years, her muscles will weaken until she can no longer walk, use her hands, chew, swallow, speak, and ultimately, breathe. Then she will die. Taylor does not want to go through all of that. She wants to die at a time of her own choosing.

Suicide is not a crime in Canada, so, as Taylor put it: “I simply cannot understand why the law holds that the able-bodied who are terminally ill are allowed to shoot themselves when they have had enough because they are able to hold a gun steady, but because my illness affects my ability to move and control my body, I cannot be allowed compassionate help to allow me to commit an equivalent act using lethal medication.”

Taylor sees the law as offering her a cruel choice: either end her life when she still finds it enjoyable, but is capable of killing herself, or give up the right that others have to end their lives when they choose. She went to court, arguing that the provisions of the Criminal Code that prevent her from receiving assistance in dying are inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which gives Canadians rights to life, liberty, personal security, and equality.

The court hearing was remarkable for the thoroughness with which Justice Lynn Smith examined the ethical questions before her. She received expert opinions from leading figures on both sides of the issue, not only Canadians, but also authorities in Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The range of expertise included general medicine, palliative care, neurology, disability studies, gerontology, psychiatry, psychology, law, philosophy, and bioethics.

Many of these experts were cross-examined in court. Along with Taylor’s right to die, decades of debate about assistance in dying came under scrutiny.

Last month, Smith issued her judgment. The case, Carter v. Canada, could serve as a textbook on the facts, law, and ethics of assistance in dying.

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Smith then declared, after considering the applicable law, that the provisions of the Criminal Code preventing physician assistance in dying violate disabled people’s right not only to equality, but also to life, liberty, and security. She thus opened the door for physician assistance in dying for any grievously and irremediably ill competent adult, under conditions not very different from those that apply in other jurisdictions where physician assistance in dying is legal.

The decision will almost certainly be appealed,.......
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