Thursday, October 16, 2014

Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments in Charter challenge to assisted dying criminalisation

An exciting day yesterday. I listened all day via live audio-video link to the Supreme Court of Canada hearing on the Charter challenge to Canada's criminalisation of assisted dying. Commentators in the national media are broadly in agreement that the Attorney General of Canada made a hash of it, and that the judges' questioning a least appeared hostile to the government's defense of the status quo. I share that view, being not a lawyer and all. I was pleased to see that the Royal Society of Canada Report I had a hand in producing got a mention in various presentations. One of my colleagues on the expert panel, Jocelyn Downie, live tweeted the event from the SCC. I looked at the list of interveners in the case. There's a whole bunch of them, virtually all of whom are Christian activist groups, some more fundamentalist than others. Their presentations were by and large predictable. There was much hand-wringing about threats to vulnerable disabled people. We know today from jurisdictions that have decriminalised that these threats are entirely imaginary. We also know that these hand-wringers cannot even claim to represent the majority of disabled people in this matter. I wonder how genuine these arguments really are. I suspect they are a last ditch attempt at keeping the SCC from declaring the part of the Criminal Code that criminalises assisted dying unconstitutional. The God folks also served other arguments such as the sanctity-of-life argument. One judge asked a youngish evangelical lawyer what this would imply for a possible future introduction of the death penalty into Canada's legal system. Being a conservative the lawyer couldn't quite bring himself to say that the death penalty would also be wrong. Then there was a lawyer representing groups called the Faith and Freedom Alliance and the Protection of Conscience Project. He didn't address the actual challenge but asked that the Court direct parliament to ensure that health care professionals would not be forced to assist in dying if they had conscientious objections. That, of course, is the case already today in matters such as abortion. However, this lawyer wanted to extend conscience based protections. Today health care professionals are legally required to pass the help-seeking patient on to a health care professional willing to provide the requested service. The lawyer wanted to strike out such an obligation. I am not a fan of conscientious objection rights anyway, so I hope the Court will ignore this. - So, all in all, a nice day of theatre on the stage of the SCC. I remain hopeful that we will soon learn that the criminalisation of assisted dying is unconstitutional in Canada. Fingers crossed, with a hopefully upcoming change in federal government, this could actually result in progressive Canadian legislation on this going forward.

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