Supreme Court hears arguments into feds' extension request

It’s now in the Supreme Court’s hands whether to delay the implementation of its landmark decision on physician assisted dying.

In their first sitting of 2016, justices on the high court heard arguments Monday into the federal government’s request for more time to respond to last February’s ruling in Carter v. Canada. The judgment, which strikes down the Criminal Code ban on assisted dying, was set to come into effect on Feb. 6, 2016.

However, in December, the Liberal government asked the court to suspend the implementation of the decision until August 6, to give lawmakers and regulators across the country more time to develop new rules for assisted death.

"Our request to this court is based protection of the public and the rule of law… and ensuring that there's a comprehensive scheme in place,” government lawyer Robert Frater told the court on Monday, according to a report by the CBC.

"The number of issues that have to be dealt with here are extremely large and they are very complex."

One of the thorniest issues faced by the Supreme Court, and indeed the government, is Quebec’s newly implemented Dying with Dignity law. A lawyer for the province asked the Supreme Court to exempt Quebec from a decision that would temporarily extend the Criminal Code ban on assisted death. Representatives from the federal government as well as the Government of Ontario spoke out in favour of Quebec’s request, as it is the only province to have passed comprehensive legislation on assisted dying.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the request on Monday and did not state when a final decision will made.

Impact on patients

Arguing against the extension was the BC Liberties Association, the law group that brought the Carter v. Canada case to the Supreme Court in the first place. An extension would harm some of Canada’s most desperately ill patients and would reinforce the very same type of terrible suffering that led the Supreme Court to declare the country’s old assisted dying ban unconstitutional, said BCCLA lawyer Joe Arvay.

"If there's any further delay, it will cause critically ill Canadians to continue to live in suffering and to die agonizing deaths against their wishes,” Grace Pastine, the BCCLA’s litigation director told CBC Ottawa before the hearing on Monday morning. 

"Six months may not seem like a long time... but for someone who is critically ill, for example, in the final stages of ALS or multiple sclerosis, or if they have terminal cancer, even a day of suffering can feel like an absolute eternity.”

Extension is unnecessary

Dying With Dignity Canada has spoken out repeatedly against an extension, arguing it is unnecessary as well as cruel to patients who can’t wait any longer to access their hard-won right to a peaceful death.

An extension is unnecessary, said DWDC CEO Wanda Morris said, because the decision doesn't require Ottawa or the provinces to pass new legislation. In addition, existing laws and regulations are sufficient to ensure that assisted dying can be responsibly administered while the provinces and the federal government developed harmonized legislation.

“The government should be applauded for wanting to craft thoughtful legislation on assisted dying,” she said in December. “But they can do so without trampling on patients’ rights any longer.”

(Header image credit: Robert Linsdell/Flickr)


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