Whose Life Is This Anyway? The Canadian “Right To Die” Debate Part One – Definitions and A Story

Sue Rodriguez was an active and intelligent woman when she was diagnosed with the debilitating and ultimately fatal, Lou Gehrig’s disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1991. Indeed, it is her wit and poise many of us remember when we recall the headlines she generated. Her quote, “whose life is it anyway,” spoken in a slow drawl, her ability to speak being slowly taken away by disease, still resonates with Canadians today as once again our courts grapple with the most basic issues of life and death.

As with all controversial issues, the right to die has taken a “life” of its own as it extends over all areas of deeply held beliefs such as philosophy, science, law, religion, politics, and socio-economic concerns. The issue has been considered in all forms of media and in all manners of legal cases. It has been touted in Kevorkian-like advertisement and debated in the highest offices of the land and yet, it is a profoundly personal issue, which transcends nationality and ethnicity.

Throughout this vastness of ideas and beliefs, it is essential to keep in mind that at the very core of the issue, there is always an individual, a person who is suffering, a person who wants a choice where a choice is not legally given. Sue Rodriguez was such an individual those many years ago when she took her right to choose to the Senate and to the Supreme Court of Canada. In the end, it was Sue Rodriguez who choose to die “on her own terms” outside of the law, even though her last wish was to remain one who respected it.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are actually two different concepts. Euthanasia is the deliberate act undertaken by one person with the intention of ending the life of another person in order to relieve that person’s suffering. There are three forms of euthanasia: voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary. Voluntary euthanasia occurs when the act is done in accordance with the wishes of a legally competent individual or on the basis of a valid medical directive prepared when the patient is competent to authorize the procedure. A competent individual is capable of understanding the nature and consequences of the decision to be made and capable of communicating this decision. Non-voluntary euthanasia occurs when the act is done without knowledge of the wishes of a competent individual or, with respect to an incompetent individual. This form of euthanasia may attract criminal sanctioning. The third and last form is involuntary euthanasia occurs when the act is done against the wishes of the individual. This act is indistinguishable from murder or manslaughter and should attract the full force of our criminal law.

The Criminal Code of Canada, pursuant to s.14, essentially prohibits euthanasia by stating: “No person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him.” It is a core traditional principle of our criminal law that an individual cannot consent to his or her death. Indeed, one cannot even consent to grievous injury, which explains why even in a consensual violent sport like hockey, Todd Bertuzzi was charged with assault causing bodily harm. Whether or not the sentence imposed, a conditional discharge, was appropriate is another matter for a later blog. In any event, even in the medical sense, a doctor who gives the patient a lethal injection would be criminally liable. Also in the Criminal Code are legal duties placed upon medical personnel, which require them to perform their duties with all due care, requirements contrary to taking a patient’s life.

Therefore, euthanasia is clearly contrary to Canadian criminal law, and should be prosecuted as first-degree murder, because there is an intent to cause death, which is the definition of murder, and the act is most often planned and deliberate, which is the definition of first-degree murder. However, the Canadian reaction to euthanasia scenarios have fallen short of first-degree murder charges and have tended toward lesser charges such as charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and administrating a noxious substance. The charge decisions have definitely been influenced by the circumstances surrounding the euthanasia as a response to human suffering and the desire to relieve the suffering, such as in the Robert Latimer case.

Another factor is the unpredictable nature of juries, who are required to make decisions according to the rule of law but can be swayed by emotional factors as well. Finally, it can be legally difficult to prove murder in euthanasia cases. The Crown prosecutor must prove a legal and factual casual connection between the accused’s actions and the death. Typically, medical evidence is required to make this required connection. In euthanasia cases, it may be medically difficult to prove the exact cause of death when a person is in any case close to death and taking considerable pain medication. 

Assisted suicide, on the other hand, is the act of intentionally killing oneself with the assistance of another who provides either the knowledge to do it or the means to do it, or both. Assisted suicide is specifically prohibited in our Criminal Code under s.241, in which counseling someone to commit suicide or aiding or abetting someone to commit suicide is contrary to the law. Even if the person in question does not die from the aid, the person so assisting may be guilty under the section.

The difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide is therefore dependent on the type of involvement of the third party: euthanasia is when the action of a third party intentionally causes the death of a patient such as through the administration of a lethal injection and assisted suicide is when a third party provides the means and/or information necessary but the actual act causing death is carried out by the patient herself.

My next posting will continue outlining the legal background to this debate with a survey of the legal decisions made on the issue. However, to start and end this posting with Sue Rodriguez is essential: she was a real person suffering from the effects of a debilitating disease and her choice, to end her life when she saw fit, not when it was beyond her control, was her truest wish.