The Supreme Court decision on doctor-assisted suicide generates discussion

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Dr. Christine P. Oriel

On February 6 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the criminal code prohibitions on physician-assisted suicide and voluntary consent to euthanasia violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Previous to the ruling, a doctor who assists a person in ending his life even with the latter’s consent is subject to criminal liability.

The unanimous ruling overturned the ban on doctor- assisted suicide and gave parliament 12 months to enact legislation that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are suffering intolerable physical or mental suffering from a grievous medical condition to seek medical help to end their lives.

At first blush the decision might not favourably resonate with a lot of Filipino-Canadians and may incite negative passions on the grounds that “mercy killing,” or patient-assisted suicide, is against God and our culture.

On the other hand, a dispassionate debate is warranted on the issue because Filipino-Canadians are after all part of the Canadian mosaic that makes up our society.

In its decision the high court was careful to set limits as to who can avail of the aid of a doctor to end his/her life. The court stated that “a competent adult person” who “has a grievous and irremediable medical condition” and endures intolerable suffering resulting thereof should not be barred from giving consent ending his/her life with the aid of a doctor.

Clearly, the decision limits access to “physician-assisted death” to a carefully circumscribed subset of Canadians. The decision must come from a competent adult person who has a grievous medical condition that is “irremediable” (cannot be alleviated by means acceptable to the individual concerned) and causes intolerable suffering to the person.

Doctors do not have the power to exercise their discretion “at will” to end the life of a person. The decision does not give the physicians the unfettered discretion to provide medical assistance to suicide. The individual must be shown to be afflicted by an irremediable, grievous medical condition that makes continued living intolerable.

What is the bottom line? Choosing a “doctor-assisted suicide” boils down to a personal decision.

In the end, a person who chooses to avail of a “dignified death” of his own volition cannot be trumped by the collective group’s religious, moral or ethical beliefs. It is the concerned individual’s moral standards that are solely relevant and he/she is alone answerable to his religious beliefs.

I may not personally consider such an option for myself in the future (even if a serious irremediable medical condition causing intolerable suffering would befall me).

But taking the cue from the Supreme Court, this does not mean that I have the right not to take away that option for others.