On Friday the 13th, the Conservative government of Canada dealt Gloria Taylor a cruel blow. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced his government will appeal the ruling that would have allowed her to die with dignity.
A month earlier the Supreme Court of British Columbia granted the 64-year-old woman, who suffers from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease), the right to request the assistance of her doctor if she wished to end her life.
She and four other plaintiffs had asked the courts to overturn a law making it a criminal offense for doctors to assist their patients to end their lives. In June Justice Lynn Smith prepared a 395-page decision that pointed out the cruel irony of the law. As I reported then:
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.
Instead of working out the details, Justice Minister Nicholson announced on July 13th:
After careful consideration of the legal merits of the June 15, 2012 ruling from the British Columbia Supreme Court, the Government of Canada will appeal the decision to the British Columbia Court of Appeal, and will seek a stay of all aspects of the lower court decision….
The laws surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide exist to protect all Canadians, including those who are most vulnerable, such as people who are sick or elderly or people with disabilities. The Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged the state interest in protecting human life and upheld the constitutionality of the existing legislation in Rodriguez (1993).
In April 2010, a large majority of Parliamentarians voted not to change these laws, which is an expression of democratic will on this topic
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Linda Lyster, President of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association responded:
The Court was clear that the existing laws violate the rights of the seriously and incurably ill. For the government to waste limited public resources to prevent Gloria Taylor and other seriously and incurably ill Canadians from accessing a physician’s help in dying is absurd.
Beyond the hundreds of seriously ill Canadians this case gave hope to, Gloria Taylor specifically had the Court’s permission to access a physician’s help so that she could die with dignity. That decision was made after the Court heard weeks of evidence about Gloria’s personal situation. This level of interference by our government in the private matters between Gloria and her doctor is unacceptable.”
The case decided by Justice Smith was expedited in view of Taylor’s deteriorating health. It is unlikely the Harper government’s appeal will be handled with the same speed.
Lou Gehrig’s disease gradually kills the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Gradually the brain loses its ability to send messages to the muscles. In the last stages of the disease, patients are unable to breathe or swallow on their own. The time comes when they can no longer speak.
Gloria Taylor’s condition is a death sentence. Her mind will remain lucid. She will know, as the last stages of ALS set in, why it is she is unable to slip peacefully away.
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