The Canadian Supreme Court ruled on Friday that adults of sound mind who are suffering intolerably, physically or psychologically, have the right to die by physician-assisted suicide.
In its unanimous ruling on Carter v. Canada, the court found that Canada's ban on assisted suicide "infringes the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice." Doctors have the ability to address whether a patient is mentally competent and capable of consent, and whether their condition is intolerable or can be abated, the decision stated.
The ruling is suspended for 12 months to give the federal government, provincial legislatures, and medical agencies time to draft new laws. Doctors who are unwilling to take part in the procedure will not be forced to comply.
"An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy," the court stated in its decision. "The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person."
Affidavits from the case told the experiences of people who found themselves quickly succumbing to painful degenerative diseases like Huntington's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
One witness, Gloria Taylor, who was wheelchair-bound and in constant pain within a year of being diagnosed with ALS, wrote a letter to the British Columbia Supreme Court in 2010 challenging the then-constitutional ban on physician-assisted suicide.
"My present quality of life is impaired by the fact that I am unable to say for certain that I will have the right to ask for physician-assisted dying when that 'enough is enough' moment arrives," Taylor wrote. "What I fear is a death that negates, as opposed to concludes, my life."
She concluded: "I do not want to die slowly, piece by piece. I do not want to waste away unconscious in a hospital bed. I do not want to die wracked with pain."
Taylor died of an infection in 2012.
One appellant in the case, Lee Carter, was forced to take her 89-year-old mother Kathleen to Switzerland, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, to help her die with dignity in the throes of a degenerative spinal disease.
The Supreme Court's decision on Friday means Canadians "have a choice to die with dignity in our own country, surrounded by friends and family," Carter told the Daily Globe and Mail, adding that the ruling honored her mother's memory. "We were elated. She got what she wanted."
Grace Pastine of British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which brought the case, said Friday was "one incredible day."
"Physician-assisted dying is now recognized for what it is—a medical service that brings an end, for some individuals, to unbearable suffering," Pastine said.
Wanda Morris, CEO of Toronto-based right-to-death nonprofit Dying With Dignity, thanked the plaintiffs who filed the case and the physicians "who had the courage to go against their profession and stand up."
"I am so pleased that today the courts have dragged our laws into line with the values of Canadians, those values of compassion and autonomy we hold so dear," she said.