11/13/2011 06:00 EST | Updated 01/13/2012 05:12 EST

Assisted Suicide In Canada: Dying Woman Challenges Laws 20 Years After Last Attempt


VANCOUVER - It's been nearly 20 years since Canada's laws on assisted suicide have been challenged by a terminally ill person, and now a similar right-to-die case has thrust the issue back into the spotlight.

On Monday, lawyers for Gloria Taylor, 63, will be in B.C. Supreme Court to argue against laws that make it a criminal offence to help seriously ill people end their lives.

In August, the Farewell Foundation lost its court battle to have the laws changed because its plaintiffs were anonymous, but in a separate case, Judge Lynn Smith agreed to fast track a trial for Taylor, who wants a doctor-assisted suicide.

She suffers from ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, an incurable illness that gradually weakens and degenerates muscles to the point of paralysis.

Taylor is one of five plaintiffs in the case, which also includes family physician Dr. William Shoichet, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Lee Carter and her husband Hollis Johnson. The couple took Carter's mother to Switzerland two years ago so she could die with the help of a doctor.

"Lee and Hollis feel they could be criminally prosecuted for assisting her mother and that's why they are challenging the laws," said B.C. Civil Liberties lawyer Grace Pastine, adding Kay Carter suffered from spinal stenosis, which involves a narrowing of the spine.

"She was essentially going to end up lying in a hospital bed, flat like an ironing board."

While advocates for doctor-assisted suicide say it's time for Canada to amend the laws, opponents argue the issue raises serious concerns about abuse by people who stand to gain from the death of someone who may not be in a position to provide consent to assisted suicide.

The right-to-die, or euthanasia, debate last arose in 1993 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 5-4 against Victoria resident Sue Rodriguez's battle to change the law. She also had ALS and died illegally the following year with the help of an anonymous doctor.

Sheila Tucker, one of the lawyers involved in Taylor's case, said the Kelowna, B.C., woman is relatively mobile and uses a scooter to get around but recently fell and hurt her ribs, and that could worsen her condition.

Tucker said that since the Rodriguez case, other jurisdictions, including Oregon, Washington and Belgium, have adopted laws to protect people from being influenced or pushed into planning their own deaths.

"An absolute prohibition is no longer constitutionally feasible now that there's evidence of workable systems," Tucker said.

She said studies in Oregon have suggested that people who want to die with the help of a doctor aren't likely to be victimized.

"The studies indicate that the very kind of personality type that is most likely to seek physician-assisted dying is, in fact, the independent, strong-willed personality. And I think that Gloria just happens to be an excellent example of that," she said.

"If we were not able to get some sort of timely resolution that benefited Gloria personally then I think it's very important for her to nonetheless know that that case is going to the Supreme Court of Canada and that potentially she's changed the law for others."

But Dr. Will Johnston, the B.C. spokesman for the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Canada, said the Taylor case is troubling because it proposes that doctors would not be required to administer the lethal dose or even witness the death.

A new right-to-die law may give people another tool to abuse the elderly, especially when money is involved, he said.

"We simply don't know how to get a handle on the abuse right now, and what's being proposed simply opens up an entirely new avenue for potential victimization and abuse," said Johnston, a family doctor.

"We're in the middle of the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history. So there is simply an excessive motivation, it seems, for often family members to do things that aren't really in the best interest of the elderly."

Along with delivering babies and providing palliative care for dying patients, Johnston is also hired by lawyers to do competency or capability assessments on elderly or ill people.

He said he can think of at least 10 elder abuse cases involving people whose family members were trying to get their wills changed or bilk them of their savings by suggesting their elderly relatives weren't capable of making such decisions.

"There's nothing in the Carter-Taylor case which would prevent people who would benefit from the death of the person from proposing the suicide to them, arranging it or facilitating it, being there at the time of death. There's no requirement for third-party witnesses."

He said that since about 1996, it's been legal in Oregon for pharmacies to dispense lethal drugs for doctor-assisted suicides but there's no requirement of a witness or supervision when the drugs are administered and no statistics to gauge how the law is working.

"One thing that does emerge, which is interesting, is that people who are dying are affluent. And this is consistent with the situation of elder abuse."

In Canada, it’s illegal to counsel, aid or abet a person to commit suicide and the offence carries a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison.