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Death on the docket: Supreme Court rules today on doctor-assisted suicide

OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada will rule this morning on whether mentally competent but suffering, terminally ill patients have a right to a medically assisted death.

It’s a constitutional question that divides the medical community, splits advocates for the disabled and sparks profoundly moral arguments from both sides of the debate.

The families of two now-deceased British Columbia women, supported by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, pursued the legal challenge all the way to the country’s top court two decades after a near-identical challenge failed.

In 1993, the story of Sue Rodriguez riveted the country when the Supreme Court ruled that her equality rights were infringed — but justifiably so — by the legal ban on doctor-assisted death.

The only member of the 1993 Supreme Court who is still sitting is Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who was among the four dissenting judges in the split 5-4 Rodriguez judgment.

This time around, the families of Gloria Taylor and Kay Carter believe the social landscape has changed enough that the well-grounded concerns of the Supreme Court majority can be allayed — undermining the reasons physician-assisted suicide was rebuffed by the court a generation ago.

The Canadian Medical Association last year ended its long-standing, blanket rejection of doctor-assisted death when delegates voted overwhelmingly to permit physicians to follow their conscience on end-of-life care if medically aided dying becomes legal.

A number of jurisdictions, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, have right-to-die regimes, and these heavily researched systems now bolster impassioned arguments for and against the practice.

“We know we can protect the weak and vulnerable with an absolute ban,” Wanda Morris of Dying With Dignity Canada said in an interview.

“Can we still protect the weak and vulnerable while also providing justice to those who suffer horribly?”

Morris argues the experience in other jurisdictions shows that, “having legislation doesn’t increase death. It regulates it.”

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition argues otherwise.

“If legalized, assisted suicide will create new paths to abuse of elders, people with disabilities and other socially devalued people,” the group said in a statement Thursday.

What seems certain is that the Supreme Court will not simply swing open the legal doors to doctor-assisted death.

In 2013 the top court struck down the country’s prostitution laws, but gave Parliament a year to come up with new legislation. Many observers expect the court would provide a similar grace period were it to overturn the assisted-suicide law today.

And that could toss a public policy hand grenade into a House of Commons consumed by pre-campaign posturing in this federal election year.

At least six private member’s bills aimed at reforming the right-to-die prohibition have been debated and defeated by elected parliamentarians since 1993 — the most recent in April 2010.