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Canadians Are Asking Courts to Let Them Die Before New Rules Kick In

As the deadline looms for the federal government to come up with new legislation allowing for doctor-assisted death, an unprecedented number of Canadians are exploring how they might end their lives sooner.

by Rachel Browne
Mar 5 2016, 5:59pm

Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson after Canada's Supreme Court struck down assisted suicide ban in 2015. (Photo by Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

As the deadline looms for the federal government to come up with new legislation allowing for doctor-assisted death, an unprecedented number of Canadians are exploring how they might end their lives sooner.

Last February, right-to-die advocates rejoiced when Canada's Supreme Court struck down the criminal ban on doctor-assisted suicide, arguing it violated the constitution. The court gave the government one year to craft legislation to replace it, and then in January granted a further extension until June 6th for the new Liberal government.

But it also ruled that in the meantime Canadians could apply for legal exemptions through the provincial courts so they could die before any new rules kick in — and according to at least one charity, demand is high.

"I spoke with between eight to 10 people across Canada who are really going for it," Nino Sekopet, program manager with End-of-Life Planning Canada (ELPC), told VICE News, adding he expects to see more cases. "How far they are going to go with the process and if they are going to give up or not, I don't know, but these are cases of people seriously pursuing this option."

He says their ages range from mid-40s to late 70s, and each person is suffering from painful terminal illnesses including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), and advanced forms of cancer.

But Sekopet also warned that the process is unclear and inconsistent, and could force patients to endure further suffering and hardship.

This week, details emerged of two people, a Calgary woman and a Toronto man, who applied for legal exemptions to die with the help of their doctors. The cases have added more fuel to an already heated debate, as some doctors have threatened to leave the country if they're forced to perform assisted deaths, and religious groups continue to slam the court's decision as an affront to the sanctity of life.

Related: An Election Has Put the Brakes on Doctor-Assisted Suicide Consultation in Canada

The Calgary woman, who had ALS, ended her life this week in Vancouver after she was granted a legal exemption by an Alberta court. She is believed to have been the first Canadian outside of Quebec allowed to die with a doctor's help.

"I do not wish to have continued suffering and to die of this illness by choking," Ms. S, whose name is concealed by court order, wrote in an affidavit, according to the CBC. "I feel that my time has come to go in pace."

Now, an 80-year Toronto man suffering from lymphoma is asking an Ontario judge for permission for a doctor-assisted death, a choice he says is supported by his family, physicians, and a psychiatrist. The man, referred to as A.B., is fighting to keep his identity a secret.

The Supreme Court's ruling stipulated that in order for someone to qualify for an assisted death, they must be a consenting "competent adult" older than 19, who has a "grievous and irremediable medical condition."

Sekopet says that the people pursuing legal exemptions will likely face numerous hurdles and delays, especially as Ontario and Quebec are the only provinces that have interim guidelines on assisted death. Last year Quebec implemented a law allowing for euthanasia, which is when a doctor deliberately ends the life of the patient, as opposed to giving them the tools to do so. This week, Alberta announced it was seeking public input to craft its own guidelines.

'I spoke with between eight to 10 people across Canada who are really going for it.'

"You have lots of undefined territory on the legal and healthcare end of the equation," he said. "Even if someone gathers all the documentation, for people from all the other provinces, they are going through this in the dark."

"People who are dying and who are vulnerable and who need help the most, it feels to me the system is failing them again because of the complexity and murkiness of this whole process."

Sekopet also added that there's no clear answer on the question of how these people will find doctors willing to assist their deaths, and, for people who can't afford it, how they will pay for expensive court processes.

"It's really a mess if you ask me," he said. "How many hurdles do patients need to go through to reach their final destination?"

For Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of right-to-die advocacy group Dying with Dignity Canada, the interim court exemptions reinforce her belief that new legislation should not require patients to get permission through a judicial process.

Related: Quebec Doctor Administers First Legal Assisted Death in Canada

"We recognize the court exemption process is an extraordinary one that the Supreme Court allowed for people waiting … as a remedy for their suffering," Gokool said. "But we reject the the idea that there should be any tribunals being the assessment body after June 6th. We believe that assisted dying is a private healthcare matter between the person and their healthcare provider."

"What we're seeing now is not an acceptable way to treat a health care practice."

A parliamentary committee report on assisted death presented last week stirred controversy as it recommended the government extend its new legislation to allow people with mental illnesses and "mature minors" to access doctor-assisted death.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told reporters the Liberal cabinet will begin discussing the issue by next week.

"We're looking to ensure that we continue to take an empathetic approach, that we look to create balance in our approach that recognizes the autonomy of individuals, that recognizes the need to protect the vulnerable, that respects the conscience rights of medical practitioners. And that will take a little bit of time," she said.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne