[Right_to_die] Take euthanasia out of the Canadian criminal code, says prof.
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Mon Jan 10 09:34:07 PST 2011
Canadian Lawyer journal carried this article on 29 Dec 10:
De-criminalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, says law prof
Written by Olivia D’Orazio
Euthanasia and assisted suicide should be taken out of the Criminal
Code, argues law professor Jocelyn Downie.
Downie will be giving a lecture at McGill University on Jan. 13 and says
she will not only review where Canadian laws currently stand on these
issues, but also suggest the need for law reform.
“My ideal [situation] would be that it, euthanasia and assisted suicide,
be taken out of the Criminal Code and be handled through a commission
that oversees what’s going on and sets out very clear standards under
which euthanasia or assisted suicide can be practised,” she says.
The lecture is co-sponsored by the McGill Research Group on Health and
Law and the McGill Biomedical Ethics Unit.
This lecture comes on the heels of public hearings on euthanasia in
Quebec and a new poll commissioned by the CBC and Radio-Canada. The poll
revealed that 83 per cent of Quebeckers support euthanasia and assisted
suicide. However, a minority would not consider this end-of-life option
for themselves or a loved one.
Currently, the Criminal Code prohibits euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Section 14 states: “No person is entitled to consent to have death
inflicted on him, and such consent does not affect the criminal
responsibility of any person by whom death may be inflicted on the
person by whom consent is given.”
Section 241 takes a stronger position on assisted suicide, stating:
“Every one who counsels a person to commit suicide, or aids or abets a
person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an
indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding
“It’s a bit of a mixed bag, because it’s very clearly illegal, both
assisted suicide and euthanasia,” says Downie, who holds the Canadian
Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. “But then if you look at all
the cases . . . you don’t see 100 per cent of the people, or anywhere
close, being charged, prosecuted, and then sent to jail. So there’s a
bit of a disconnect between what seems to be a very strictly prohibited
regime and a regime in which . . . there are plea bargains being
accepted, people aren’t even being charged and so on.”
One of the most prominent euthanasia and assisted suicide cases in
Canada is the Sue Rodriguez case. Rodriguez challenged the Criminal
Code, claiming its prohibition of assisted suicide violated her Charter
rights. In 1993, despite a close decision, Rodriguez lost her case at
the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1994, she took her own life with the
help of a physician. An investigation into her death ensued, but no
arrests or charges were made. Many supporters of the legalization of
euthanasia and assisted suicide consider this a landmark case in
promoting the importance of this issue.
Downie says Canada can look at other countries or states as models for
new laws in this area. She points to Belgium, the Netherlands,
Washington, Oregon, and, most recently, Montana.
Oregon has strict guidelines when it comes to allowing
physician-assisted suicide. To be considered for physician-assisted
suicide, a patient must be at least 18 years old, be a resident of
Oregon, be capable of making and communicating health-care decisions,
and be diagnosed with a terminal illness which will lead to death within
six months. After these criteria are met, a patient must make a series
of requests to his or her physician, who must then consult with at least
one other physician. The patient may be required to undergo
psychological testing. Several other criteria and requirements also
exist. In 2008, only 88 prescriptions were written for lethal
medications under the state’s Death with Dignity Act, and only 54
patients carried out their plans for physician-assisted suicide.
“A lot of people don’t think that they would feel it to be necessary,
and not very many people would actually avail themselves of it were it
available,” says Downie. “For one thing, it brings an enormous amount of
comfort to people knowing that it is legal because then they know they
have a way out . . . [even if] they may not actually need to exercise that.
“You want it to be there, but you certainly hope you’ll never have to
As with any highly controversial issue, the public has provided
passionate commentary on the legalization of euthanasia and assisted
suicide. Much of the opposition point to the “slippery slope” argument:
once euthanasia and assisted suicide are legalized, the vulnerable — the
elderly, the disabled, the mentally challenged — will be taken advantage
of. Downie argues that there is no evidence of this.
“I’m not sure how familiar people are with the data and the evidence
that’s coming out of countries that have started to allow euthanasia and
assisted suicide,” she says. “People still make the ‘slippery slope’
argument . . . but there’s no evidence for this.”
Regardless of the outcome, Downie applauds Quebec for drawing attention
to this highly charged, yet important issue.
Downie is currently a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax in
the faculties of both law and medicine. She has published much
literature on this topic, including Dying Justice: A Case for
Decriminalizing Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide in Canada.
McGill’s annual lecture in health and law, “Just dying: A discussion of
euthanasia, assisted suicide, and the law,” takes place Jan. 13 at 4:30
p.m. at Day, Chancellor, Hall, room 312, 3644 Peel St., Montreal.
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