Legalising assisted suicide is dangerous – just look at Canada

This week, the High Court heard a legal challenge from a terminally ill British man who wants the right to die. Noel Conway, who is 67-years-old and has motor neurone disease, wants an assisted death when his health deteriorates further. Lawyers are asking the courts to declare that the blanket ban on ‘assisted dying’ under the Suicide Act is contrary to the Human Rights Act. The current law on assisted dying was overwhelmingly upheld by parliament in 2015. The fact that the courts are hearing a challenge to this is deeply worrying.

The courts, which recently defended parliamentary sovereignty in the Article 50 legal challenge, should not be used to circumvent ‘inconvenient’ legislation. Doing so shows contempt for democracy. Moreover, the 1961 Suicide Act is a remarkably good piece of legislation. The potential sentence of 14 years in prison for assisting a suicide reflects society’s condemnation of killing, while simultaneously removing punishment of the victims of suicide. It has been used only a handful of times, but stands as a symbol of our commitment to the preservation of human life.

When dealing with such sensitive cases here in the UK, we should consider what is happening in Canada. There, the prohibition against assisted suicide was struck down by a single judge, in a single court case, involving a terminally ill individual. In 2012, lawyers representing Gloria Taylor, who, like Conway, was suffering from motor neurone disease, successfully argued that prohibiting assisted suicide breached her rights. The Supreme Court upheld the decision and ordered the federal government to pass legislation permitting assisted suicide. Bill C-14 became law on 17 June 2016, allowing both assisted suicide and euthanasia (where the doctor kills the patient).

The CBC reported recently that, by the end of 2016, there had been 1,324 cases of medical assistance in dying (MAiD) in Canada – that is, assisted suicide and euthanasia. This number is likely to increase. Before the ink was dry on C-14, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association launched a court case to ‘strike down’ as unconstitutional the somewhat slippery provision that a person’s ‘natural death must be reasonably foreseeable’ to qualify for death by lethal injection.

In the weeks that followed C-14’s passage into law, the Canadian federal government announced that it would conduct research into the possibility of extending the benefits of euthanasia to people with dementia, ‘mature children’, and those with solely psychological suffering. In the case of a 77-year-old woman suffering from non-terminal osteoarthritis, the judge chided doctors who had refused euthanasia on the grounds that her disease was not terminal. He granted the woman the right to die as she was ‘almost 80’ with ‘no quality of life’. And, of course, her death was judged to be ‘reasonably foreseeable’.

In the province of Ontario, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care announced that it would force doctors to either euthanise patients who wanted to die, or refer them to someone who would. Three years ago, it was a crime for doctors to kill their patients in Canada. Now, doctors could lose their licence for refusing to participate in killing their patients.

Judges and juries are generally sympathetic in tragic cases like Conway’s. But there is no need to change the law. We should take the court case in Canada, which opened a Pandora’s box, as a warning about the dangers of legalising assisted suicide.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland. His book, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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