NEWS
08/01/2011 04:35 EDT | Updated 09/30/2011 05:12 EDT

B.C. right-to-die group launches court challenge against aiding suicide law

VANCOUVER - Much has changed in the 18 years since Canada's high court refused Sue Rodriguez the legal right to assisted suicide.

For that reason, the Farewell Foundation For The Right to Die will be renewing the court battle around "self-chosen death" in Canada.

The foundation, on behalf of its 111 members, is in British Columbia Supreme Court Tuesday to start what's expected to be a long legal process ending eventually in Canada's highest court.

Foundation director Russel Ogden said people's opinions have changed since the 1993 Rodriguez decision and many other countries around the world have legalized or regulated the right to die.

"This is such an important question, that it ought to be a question that is decided ultimately by the highest authority in Canada and that is the Supreme Court of Canada," Ogden said.

Rodriguez had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, when Supreme Court judges ruled 5 to 4 against giving her the legal right to die.

Section 241 (b) of Canada's Criminal Code makes it an offence to help in a suicide, punishable by a term of up to 14 years in prison.

"The information that was available to the Supreme Court justices in 1993 simply didn't exist as it does today," Ogden said in an interview.

He said there's a large body of research available now where people can have their right to self determination respected, while vulnerable individuals can also be protected from being coerced into ending their lives against their true wishes.

The federal government has been resistant to social change on issues such as gay marriage, medical marijuana and multiple marriages, Ogden said.

"The only way to achieve reform, we believe, is through a direct challenge within the court. That's why we are arguing that Canada's prohibition against assisted suicide — which has existed in our criminal code since 1893 — that that prohibition is unconstitutional."

Lawyers for the foundation and the Attorney General of Canada are expected to spend two days in B.C. Supreme Court in complicated legal arguments.

The foundation is first expected to challenge the B.C. government's refusal to allow it to register as a service. Lawyers for the Attorney General of Canada are also expected to dispute the foundation's ability to challenge the section concerning assisted suicide in Canada's Criminal Code.

This isn't the only right-to-die lawsuit going through the B.C. Courts. The daughter of a Kelowna, B.C., woman who went to Switzerland to die has launched a similar case with the help of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Members of the Farewell Foundation pay a $50 dollar annual membership fee, but wouldn't be charged for any services the foundation proposes to provide.

Ogden said some of the foundation members are healthy, but others are severely ill with terminal cancer, ALS, Parkinson's disease, and many other conditions.

He said the foundation launched the lawsuit on behalf of all its members, so they may remain anonymous.

The New Westminster, B.C., organization has based its procedural safeguards on the Swiss model surrounding self-chosen death "to protect vulnerable people while safeguarding the fundamental right to self-determination."

"Self-chosen death occurs in the matter, time and place decided by the individual who dies," said a draft of the foundation's list of safeguards.