VANCOUVER - The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to review the country's assisted suicide laws more than two decades after it rejected doctor-assisted dying for people who are terminally ill.
The high court announced Thursday it will hear an appeal in a case that briefly overturned the ban on assisted suicide and offered a British Columbia woman a constitutional exemption to get help in ending her life.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which has argued on behalf of several ill people who claimed they wanted to die with dignity, hailed the decision.
In 2012, Justice Lynn Smith of the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the existing law was unconstitutional, but delayed her ruling for a year to allow the federal government to rewrite the statute.
Smith also granted Gloria Taylor an exemption that would have allowed her to seek an assisted death. Taylor was terminally ill with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
The federal government appealed the B.C. Supreme Court decision, and the B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the ruling last October, concluding that the 1993 case that upheld the law was binding and that the lower court didn't have the ability to overturn the decision.
The 20-year-old case that ruled against assisted suicide involved Victoria resident Sue Rodriguez.
Taylor didn't use the constitutional exemption. She died of an infection in October 2012.
But the family of another woman, 89-year-old Kay Carter who went to Switzerland in January 2010 to end her life, is continuing the court fight with the help of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
"Today we are savouring the knowledge that seriously ill Canadians are going to have the opportunity to make their plea to the court," said lawyer Grace Pastine, who has argued the case for the association.
"There are few rights more fundamental or more deeply personal than the right to decide how much suffering to endure at the end of life and whether to seek a doctor's assistance to hasten that, if living becomes unbearable," she said.
Pastine said a woman named Elayne Shapray, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is seeking the right to die, has joined the challenge to the existing law.
"She would like to be able to choose a peaceful death surrounded by her loved ones and by her family," Pastine said. "She filed an affidavit in support of our application and explained to the court that she was tormented by the knowledge that she might become trapped in an unbearable dying process and would forfeit the ability to take her own life."
The association applied to have the appeal process expedited, saying the case is of extreme urgency for some very ill Canadians, but the high court rejected that application, giving no reasons as is customary.
The original case included the association, Lee Carter and Hollis Johnson, the two who took Lee's mother to Switzerland.
The trial judge skirted the Rodriguez decision by saying the Supreme Court charter rulings in recent years on the guarantees to "life, liberty, and security of the person" allowed for assisted suicide in some cases.
The judge ruled the law must allow physician-assisted suicide in cases involving patients who are diagnosed with a serious illness or disability and who are experiencing "intolerable" physical or psychological suffering with no chance of improvement.
Proponents of assisted suicide argue that the Rodriguez ruling is outdated and that society's view of the issue has changed significantly.
However, the federal government argues that Rodriguez is the final word on the subject.
NDP Opposition NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Prime Minister Stephen Harper should not use assisted suicide as a political wedge issue.
Mulcair said the Supreme Court of Canada will probably send the matter back to Parliament to decide, just as it did with prostitution and Vancouver's safe-injection site, and if that happens there's a lot of work to be done.
"These are complex issues because people who work in health care are dealing with these issues every day of the week," he said.
Dr. Will Johnston, chairman of the he Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of BC, which intervened in the case last fall, said he was disappointed in the top court's decision to hear the appeal.
"The court rejected assisted suicide and euthanasia in 1993 and prevented Canada from taking a wrong turn," he said.
"Let us hope that by clarifying the issues, the Supreme Court once again confirms the Canadian rejection of suicide and direct killing of the sick, and that we stay the course in providing great symptom control to all who need it."
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