11/14/2011 03:04 EST | Updated 01/14/2012 05:12 EST

Right-To-Die Debate: B.C. Court Hears Euthanasia Case


VANCOUVER - The legal review of Canada's assisted suicide laws came too late for a British Columbia man who suffered from a terminal illness and hoped to end his life "with peace and dignity."

In an affidavit sworn earlier this year for the assisted-suicide lawsuit that began Monday in B.C. Supreme Court, Peter Fenker made the emotional plea to be allowed to end his life with a doctor's help.

Instead, he died in hospital two weeks ago after what his wife, Grace, called four horror-filled days of watching her husband suffer.

"I will never forget the pleading look in his eyes as he asked me to help him and there was nothing I could do," she wrote in an affidavit read by Joe Arvay, a lawyer for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, turned Fenker, 71, from a strong and healthy former logger into a withered shell of a man in just three years, the affidavit said.

He deteriorated to the point where he couldn't even turn the page on a newspaper.

"I feel like I have turned into a blob with useless limbs," he said in his affidavit.

"I would like my life to end in a dignified way, with the help of a doctor, and in a way that is not painful for my family."

The Civil Liberties Association is one of five plaintiffs in the controversial case that includes Gloria Taylor, 63, arguing against laws that make it a criminal offence to help seriously ill people end their lives.

Taylor also suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease, an incurable illness that gradually weakens and degenerates muscles to the point of paralysis. The case was fast-tracked because of her deteriorating condition.

Arvay said Fenker and Taylor were friends who met in an ALS support group that Taylor founded.

"We hope by this lawsuit to allow Gloria Taylor to avoid Peter's fate and horrible end and to give her the option of a physician-assisted death at a time if and when her suffering becomes intolerable to her," Arvay told Judge Lynn Smith.

Federal government lawyer Donnaree Nygard told the court that the issue is very emotional and that the stories are heart wrenching, but the potential harm of striking down the law is irreversible and would put the elderly, the depressed and the disabled at risk.

"No system of safeguards can ensure that the apprehended harms of allowing assisted suicide, or euthanasia, including the wrongful deaths of vulnerable individuals, will not materialize," she told the judge.

Outside the court, about two dozen people against assisted suicide hung effigies to represent people who could be victimized if the laws were struck down.

John Coppard, who's recovering from brain cancer, said a new drug saved his life.

He said giving people an option of assisted suicide would be a mistake and the current laws exist to protect Canadians.

"I'm out here because I'm really concerned about what's going on inside there," he said.

"I qualify under what they're proposing in there. I think they're playing with my life. I'm really concerned because I've been through rough points, like a lot of people with what I have."

Coppard said he worries that legalizing assisted suicide would make it too easy for people — including doctors — to give up the fight for health and take a fast exit out of life.

"I just bought a boat. I plan on sticking around for a while and I really hope Gloria Taylor does too."

Arvay told reporters outside the court that since the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the current law in the Rodriguez case in 1993, much has changed.

Other jurisdictions such as Oregon, Washington and Belgium have adopted laws to permit assisted suicide while guarding against people being influenced or pushed into planning their own deaths, Arvay said.

But Dr. Will Johnston, a Vancouver physician who is a spokesman for the B.C. chapter of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Canada, said it's not clear whether those safeguards are working.

Johnston, who attended Monday's protest, said there is no requirement for a witness to be present at an assisted death in Oregon.

"We have no idea how many of the deaths in Oregon are truly voluntary. People change their mind all the time," he said.

"We have jurisdictions like Holland where an official government report has documented literally thousands of deaths where there is no evidence that guidelines were followed or that there was any formal request for assisted suicide."

He noted that Scotland and Australia have gone through the same examination of their laws as Canada is now doing and have rejected enabling assisted suicide.

He cautioned the court against "allowing ourselves to be completely ruled by empathy and compassion for one or two poster cases or poster illnesses."