The 64-year-old British Columbia woman who challenged laws against doctor-assisted suicide has been granted her wish to die with dignity. With Lou Gehrig’s disease gradually eroding her health, Gloria Taylor became one of five plaintiffs to challenge the 20-year-old decision that made it a criminal offense for doctors to ease their patients’ deaths.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith struck down the prohibitions as unconstitutional. In her 395 page decision, she pointed out that suicide is not illegal in Canada. Therefore, criminalizing doctor-assisted suicide is a charter violation which denies full equality to disabled people. She also pointed out it could have the unintended effect of hastening death, pushing those with terminal illnesses to end their lives while they were still physically able to do so.
In suspending the laws against physician-assisted suicide, Justice Smith gave parliament a year to work out the details. However, because of Taylor’s deteriorating health, Smith granted an exemption that will allow her to choose the time of her death.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Union had argued on behalf of the plaintiffs. Grace Pastine, litigation director for BCCLU, said of the decision:
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association launched this lawsuit and hails the court’s ruling as a major step forward in Canada for the protection of human rights, the prevention of needless suffering and compassion at the end of life.
Will Johnston, chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C., was disappointed by the decision. Lawyers for the coalition had presented arguments that making assisted suicide legal would open the doors for elder abuse.
Justice Smith built safeguards into the procedures Taylor must follow if she decides she wishes to die in the coming year. She will have to submit a written request. Her doctor will have to certify that she is near death and specify the drugs to be used in the assisted suicide. The application will be submitted to the B.C. Supreme Court, which will then provide a ruling to the physician.
The desire to be allowed to choose her own death would not have come easily to Taylor. Interviewed by CTV last November, Taylor said:
I must make this very clear: I do not want to die. I don’t want to die anymore than any one of you. I want to live every day that I can to the fullest, one day at a time. What I do not want is to die an agonizing, slow, difficult, unpleasant, undignified death.
Now she will be able to die with dignity.
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Photo credit: Gloria Taylor in undated handout