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B.C. Supreme Court finds assisted suicide ban unconstitutional

The B.C. Supreme Court has found the law banning physician-assisted suicide to be unconstitutional.

In a 395 page-ruling, Justice Lynn Smith called the ban discriminatory.  Suicide is not illegal and therefore the law denying physically disabled people, who can't take their own lives, the same rights as able-bodied people, contravenes Section 15 of the Charter, which guarantees equality.

Due to the complexity of the issue, Smith suspended the declaration of invalidity for one year in order to give Parliament time to take whatever steps needed to draft comprehensive new legislation.

In the meantime, however, West Kelowna's Gloria Taylor's situation will be dealt with separately.

For Taylor, who suffers from a fatal neurodegenerative disease,  to have an effective remedy, wrote Smith in her decision, she must be granted a constitutional exemption during the period of suspension.

She will be permitted to seek, and her physician will be permitted to proceed with, physician-assisted death under specified conditions, which include having a physician and a consulting psychiatrist each attest to the fact that "Taylor is competent and that her request for physician-assisted death is voluntary and non-ambivalent."

If a physician or consulting psychiatrist declined to do so, that fact will be made known to subsequent physicians or consulting psychiatrists and to the court.

Although Taylor has said she will release a statement shortly after the court decision, her position on her own mortality has been made clear in previous interviews and in court documents.

In her court affidavit,  Taylor describes some of her hopes and fears regarding her death, as follows:

"I do not want my life to end violently.  I do not want my mode of death to be traumatic for my family members.  I want the legal right to die peacefully, at the time of my own choosing, in the embrace of my family and friends," she wrote.

"There will come a point when I will know that enough is enough.  I cannot say precisely when that time will be.  It is not a question of “when I can’t walk” or “when I can’t talk”.  There is no pre-set trigger moment.  I just know that, globally, there will be some point in time when I will be able to say – “this is it, this is the point where life is just not worthwhile”.  When that time comes, I want to be able to call my family together, tell them of my decision, say a dignified good-bye and obtain final closure – for me and for them."

With Smith's ruling, Canada is now in the leagues of Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, which also permit physician-assisted suicide.

The court ruling was handed down at 11:30 a.m. Friday.

Capital News story from June 30, 2011 (By Al Waters):

A Westbank woman has joined a lawsuit aimed at giving Canadians the right to physician-assisted suicide.

Gloria Taylor, 63, was diagnosed with ALS, popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, 18 months ago.

Taylor said as a long-time believer in an individual’s right to decide when to end their life, she wanted to be part of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association’s challenge to Canada’s assisted suicide law.

“I will die with dignity,” vowed Taylor, whose condition is terminal. “When we win (the legal challenge), all Canadians will have the right to die with dignity if they are terminally ill.”

Taylor said she considered launching her own legal challenge last year but did not know where to start. So, when she heard about the BCCLA lawsuit, launched in April, she wanted to be named as a plaintiff in that case.

On Tuesday, she petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court to have her name added to the lawsuit.

Taylor said her condition has been deteriorating and at a news conference in Vancouver Tuesday, said her doctors have said she has a year left to live.

Despite her condition, she has a walker, as well as a motorized wheelchair, and tries to walk a little every day, refusing to allow her condition to rob her of her remaining mobility. She said she has lost the use of her hands but overall is doing as well as a person with ALS can expect. “I thank God for every day I have left,” she told the Capital News.

Despite the pain she faces all the time, Taylor said she is determined to help others win the right to die with dignity. And she is doing so with another well-known Canadian right-to-die advocate in mind.

Eighteen years ago Victoria’s Sue Rodriquez, another ALS sufferer, unsuccessfully petitioned Canada’s Supreme Court for the right to a physician-assisted suicide. The court ruled against Rodriguez’s request by a slim 5-4 margin. Four months later Rodriguez died at her home with the help of an anonymous physician. No one was ever charged in her death.

Taylor said she is carrying the torch lit by the Victoria woman. “In my mind, Sue Rodriquez was a hero,” said Taylor. “Eighteen years ago it was defeated by just one vote (the 5-4 ruling). This time we are going to win.”

The case is currently before the B.C. Supreme Court and if denied, it would have to go to the B.C. Court of Appeals before a possible return to the Supreme Court of Canada. Taylor said she hopes the case does not have to go that far. But if it does, she is prepared.

“I have a plan B,” she said about her plans to end her life on her terms.

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