Your Right to Die
Is it legal in Canada for someone to end their own life?
Yes, in 1972 suicide was removed from the criminal code and it has been legal ever since. It remains illegal for anyone to counsel, aid or abet another person to end their own life.
If Canadians already have the right to die, why do we need medically-assisted dying?
While we have the right to die, very few of us have the resources to do so peacefully.
Many people think they could just end their lives by taking a bottle of Tylenol or other medication, perhaps washed down with a swig of champagne. The reality is that taking an over-the-counter medication or most prescription medications, even in large doses, is unlikely to lead to death. It is much more likely to lead to brain damage, kidney or liver failure or a coma.
Accessible and effective ways of ending our lives tend to be violent, such as shooting or hanging ourselves. Not only are these traumatic for the survivors, they inevitably end up by causing the individual who is choosing to die, to die alone. What's more, most individuals with terminal or incurable illnesses will not, at the end of their lives, have the ability to take their own lives in this manner.
We believe that Canadians should have the right to medically-assisted dying because we believe that individuals should be entitled to a peaceful death - and that no one should have to die alone.
What is medically assisted dying?
Medically assisted dying refers to an appropriately-regulated process where doctors provide qualifying patients with a prescription for medication that will enable them to die peacefully.
In jurisdictions such as Oregon and Washington where medically assisted dying is legal, patients seeking to end their lives still need to take the medication themselves.
Is this different from euthanasia?
Yes. In contrast to medically assisted dying where the patient must self-administer the medication, with euthanasia the medical professional actively ends the patient's life.
For example, in The Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal, a patient will typically gather with their family around them and say good-bye, then their doctor will administer a shot which will result in their peacefully slipping into a coma and then dying.
Are there different types of euthanasia?
There are generally considered to be three types of euthanasia.
The first is voluntary euthanasia. Many people remember the case of Sue Rodriguez from the early 1990's; this is what she wanted.
Sue Rodriguez was a competent and mature adult who was suffering from ALS. She wanted to die but was unable to take her own life as her disease was in its advanced stages and she no longer had sufficient motor control. In voluntary euthanasia the patient is competent and expresses their own wishes - and they enlist the support of a medical professional to carry them out.
This type of euthanasia is legal in The Netherlands.
The second type of euthanasia we call pre-planned, and it is sometimes called non-voluntary.
This refers to euthanasia that was requested when an individual was competent, but is performed at a time when they have lost their competence. For example, imagine an individual knows they are getting alzheimers' and wants to have their life ended when there is no longer quality in their life.
The only jurisdiciton in the world where pre-planned euthanasia is legal is in The Netherlands, and then only in very limited circumstances. For it to be carried out the patient must have completed an advance care directive for euthanasia and the doctor must believe that the individual is experiencing intolerable and intractable suffering.
The final type of euthanasia is involuntary. This is where someone's life is taken against their will. There is no organization in the world that is advocating for this, nor is there any jurisdiction where this is legal. Irrespective of the status of choice in dying laws, all jurisdictions have murder laws which cover involuntary euthanasia.
Where is medically-assisted dying legal?
Medically-assisted dying is legal in Oregon and Washington States in the U.S. It is also legal in Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
Most recently, there was a court decision in Montana that determined assisted dying was not illegal. The government of Montana has been instructed to rewrite the legislation accordingly.
Can Canadians travel to these jurisdictions and have assisted dying?
Only in Switzerland is it legal for non-residents to seek assisted dying. In all other jurisdictions individuals must be resident in order to have access to assisted dying.
What happens in Canada if someone assists someone else to die?
Section 241 of the Canadian criminal code prohibits aiding, abetting or counselling someone to suicide. Someone convicted of breaking this law faces a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.
Isn't there a court challenge being brought right now?
Yes. There are three separate court challenges that have been brought in the past year, one by BC Civil Liberties and two by the Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die.
The BC Civil Liberties case has been fast-tracked and will be heard by the BC Supreme Court in November. Whichever side loses will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, so this case has national significance.
The Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die has had one of their challenges dismissed and awaits a ruling on whether their second challenge will be heard.
For more detail about these cases, read the comprehensive analysis from our May 2011 Newsletter.
If legally assisted dying becomes available, what impact will that have on insurance policies? They have a clause regarding suicide, will legally aided dying be any different?
The quick answer is check the wording of your individual policy. Most policies have either a one or two year exclusion for suicide. That means that if the individual has had a policy in place for longer than that, the manner of death is irrelevant.
In Oregon, under their Death With Dignity Act, death certificates were initially filled out to indicate “suicide” but that practice has since been changed. Currently, the patient's disease is listed as the cause of death, acknowledging that it is this underlying disease that is in fact causing the person to hasten their dying.
If you have concerns check your insurance contract and contact your insurance company directly.