CALGARY — It's not clear how many Canadians have applied to the courts for physician-assisted deaths, but some experts say the first case involving a terminally ill Alberta woman has set an example for others who are bound to follow.
The Calgary woman, known only as Ms. S in court documents, was granted an exemption Monday to end her life with the help of two doctors in Vancouver. She died later that day.
Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the law prohibiting medical aid in dying. In January, it gave the federal government more time to craft a new law, but ruled that anyone who wants to die sooner can apply to a judge for an exemption.
Unclear how many requests
Some provinces are tracking requests while others are not.
Alberta Health said it is aware of how many there are in the province, but won't release the number. Nova Scotia's Justice Department has no official tracking and health officials in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador said they are unaware of any applications.
Quebec has had its own assisted-death law since December. The health authority for the Quebec City area reported the province's first case in mid-January. But total numbers in that province will only be published once a year, probably in June, when an independent commission overseeing cases publishes its annual report.
At least 20 doctor-assisted deaths in Quebec
Montreal lawyer Jean-Pierre Menard, who helped define Quebec's special application process, said there have been at least 20 doctor-assisted deaths in the province since the law came into effect. He has been involved with some of them.
"We will see the number increase rapidly,'' said Menard, who added about two per cent of the province's deaths each year could meet the criteria for an assisted death. That would be 1,200 a year.
Menard feared the exemption process in other provinces would be complicated, but found the judge in the Calgary case made it flexible. He said the ruling will likely set a precedent for other applications.
Calgary woman had ALS
Ms. S, who can't be identified due to a publication ban, was in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The disease had left her almost completely paralyzed, unable to speak or swallow liquids and in considerable pain.
Queen's Bench Justice Sheilah Martin ruled Ms. S met the criteria outlined by the Supreme Court. She was a competent adult with a grievous medical condition whose suffering could not be alleviated by any acceptable treatment. And she clearly wanted to end her life.
The woman provided the court with her medical records and statements from doctors. The judge said there was no need for her to be examined by a psychiatrist, a requirement listed by the Chief Justice of the Ontario Superior Court.
Ruling applied across Canada
Martin further ruled that Ms. S, while required to make the application in her home province, could die anywhere in Canada.
"The court showed compassion, recognized her ability to have competence in making this decision, could see that there was no coercion involved ... and concluded that she should be allowed to do this,'' said Jim Stephenson of Dying with Dignity Canada.
Stephenson said there need to be more doctors willing to perform assisted deaths. Ms. S went to Vancouver to die with the help of physicians who recently formed a clinic called Hemlock AID. He's not aware of other clinics like it in Canada.
"Imagine Ms. S in the state of ill health and the suffering ... having to fly from Alberta to B.C. Fortunately it's a short flight, but the additional burden of having to travel at that stage points how important it is to have access everywhere.''
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Here's a look at the state of Euthanasia laws in Canada and their history.
Suicide hasn't been a crime in Canada since 1972. (Shutterstock)
Doctor-assisted suicide is illegal, although the ruling of the B.C. Supreme Court will force Parliament to alter the law within one year. The Criminal Code of Canada states in section 241 that: "Every one who (a) counsels a person to commit suicide, or (b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years." (Alamy)
Passive euthanasia involves letting a patient die instead of prolonging life with medical measures. Passive euthanasia is legal in Canada. The decision is left in the hands of family or a designated proxy. Written wishes, including those found in living wills, do not have to be followed by family or a proxy. (Alamy)
Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), launched a case asking the Supreme Court of Canada to allow her to end her own life on the grounds that the current law discriminated against her disability. Because suicide is legal in Canada and Rodriguez was unable to end her life because of a lack of mobility, she argued it was discriminatory to prevent her from ending her own life with the aid of another. The court refused her request in 1993, but one year later she ended her life anyway with the help of an unnamed doctor. (CP)
Robert Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1993 death of his severely disabled daughter Tracy. A lack of oxygen during Tracy's birth led to cerebral palsy and serious mental and physical disabilities, including seizures and the inability to walk or talk. Her father ended Tracy's life by placing her in his truck and connecting a hose to the vehicle's exhaust.The case led to a heated debate over euthanasia in Canada and two Supreme Court challenges. Latimer was granted day parole in 2008 and full parole in 2010. (CP)
Former Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde tried repeatedly to get legislation legalizing euthanasia in Canada passed. Bill C-407 and Bill C-384 were both aimed at making assisted suicide legal. C-384 was defeated in the House 228 to 59, with many Bloc MPs and a handful of members from all other parties voting for the legislation. Tetraplegic Tory MP Steven Fletcher, pictured, made the following statement after C-384 was defeated: "I would like to be recorded as abstaining on this bill. The reason is I believe end of life issues need to be debated more in our country. I believe that life should be the first choice but not the only choice and that we have to ensure that resources and supports are provided to Canadians so that choice is free. I believe, when all is said and done, the individual is ultimately responsible. I want to make this decision for myself, and if I cannot, I want my family to make the decision. I believe most Canadians, or many Canadians, feel the same. As William Henley said in his poem Invictus, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."(CP)