POLITICS

Despair, joy greet Supreme Court green light for doctor-assisted death

02/06/2015 02:23 EST | Updated 04/08/2015 05:59 EDT
Tears of both despair and joy flowed Friday as Canada's highest court touched off an emotionally charged debate by striking down the country's ban on doctor-assisted death.

Right-to-die proponents were ecstatic at being handed the option even as opponents warned of a slippery slope to involuntary euthanasia.

Taylor Hyatt, a representative of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition who uses a wheelchair, said the Supreme Court had abandoned the disabled, even though the judgment insists the most vulnerable can be protected.

"I feel as if the protection has already been removed," a tearful Hyatt said in the court lobby.

"If a person has disabilities, there's an assumption that your life is unbearable and there's nothing good in it."

An equally emotional Linda Jarrett, 66, of Kitchener, Ont., diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis 16 years ago, expressed precisely the opposite view.

Having help to die at a time of her choosing will preclude "botched-up suicide attempts," she said.

"I do not want to end my life in having a quality that's not acceptable to me," Jarrett told The Canadian Press.

"I will be able to say to a physician: 'I'm ready to go now. I want my life to end'."

The mother and grandmother urged the federal government to enact legislation to give a legal framework to a decision she said was in line with majority Canadian opinion.

In words reminiscent of those once uttered by a terminally ill Sue Rodriguez, who lost her Supreme Court case for an assisted suicide in 1993, Jarrett said some of her anxiety about dying had now lifted.

"Right now, fingers crossed, I can (say) that I own my body and I own my life."

The ruling was also welcomed by the family of Susan Griffiths, 72, a Winnipeg woman with multiple system atrophy who travelled to a clinic in Switzerland in 2013 for a physician-assisted death.

Canadian law meant she had to end her life sooner, because she had to go overseas while healthy enough to travel, her daughter Natasha Griffiths said Friday.

"She had wanted to be surrounded by family and friends, and she had some immediate family with her," Griffiths said.

"But also to have close friends who would have been able to see her in the last few days...all of that was lost."

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities and Canadian Association for Community Living warned that the "most vulnerable" had lost the protection of the Criminal Code.

"At the time when grief and fear may be most powerfully present in our lives, Canadians must now decide for themselves whether life is worth living," the groups said.

"How shall we ensure that the needs of the dying are not by default secondary to the well-being of the living?"

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said the ban protected everyone equally.

Requests to die, he said, are frequently an impossible-to-ignore cry for an end to suffering, but the answer cannot be assisted death.

"The compassionate response must be to provide social, emotional and spiritual support, and the best pain management and palliative care possible," Smith said.

Dr. Philip Hebert, 63, a retired physician who teaches at the University of Toronto, said he has seen the need for the assisted-death option — both as a doctor and as someone who has lived with Parkinson's for 20 years.

The option of help with dying is empowering for patients, he said.

"I can imagine circumstances where things are so awful that I will want some assistance in dying," he said.