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Protection of Conscience Project

Service, not Servitude


Chief Justice favours assisted suicide, willing to order assistance

Re: Rodriguez and Attorney General of British Columbia et al

Supreme Court of Canada, 30 September, 1993: Court File 23476
107 D.L.R. (4th) 342, 85 C.C.C. (3d) 15, 20 W.C.B. (2d) 589

After her attempts to have the law against assisted suicide set aside by lower courts failed, Sue Rodriguez appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. While the Supreme Court narrowly dismissed her appeal (5-4), Chief Justice Antonio Lamer (dissenting) expressed the opinion that assisted suicide should be available to all, not just to those terminally ill and near death, and that everyone should be entitled to assistance in committing suicide.

Inferences about the legal and political environment in Canada may be drawn from the fact that the Rodriguez' appeals were dismissed at each level by such narrow margins, and that the Chief Justices of British Columbia and of Canada supported her position. Those who object to euthanasia or assisted suicide have cause for concern that the Chief Justice of Canada implied that some unspecified actor had a duty to assist Rodriguez to commit suicide.

Rodriguez was later killed in the presence of Canadian Member of Parliament Svend Robinson with an injection said to have been provided by an unidentified physician. [Administrator]


The appellant is terminally ill, suffering from a progressive disease of the motor neurons. There is no cure for the disease and the average duration of life is about three years. Evidence indicated that the appellant would become bedridden and unable to speak or to care for herself. The disease does not usually affect the mind of the patient. The appellant sought a declaration to the effect that she was entitled to have assistance in committing suicide when her condition becomes no longer bearable. By that time, she would be unable to commit suicide without the assistance of another person. Section 241(b) of the Criminal Code makes it an offence for anyone to aid or abet a person to commit suicide. . .

Lamer, C.J.C. (dissenting)

. . .The constitutional exemption I propose would be available only on the authority of a superior court order, granted on terms similar to those outlined by McEachern, C.J.B.C. . . . However, I would make an important change to the order he would have granted in this appeal.

I have held that S. 241(b) violates the equality rights of all persons who desire to commit suicide but are or will become physically unable to do so unassisted. Restricting the remedy to those who are terminally ill, and suffering from incurable diseases or conditions, as McEachern, C.J.B.C. would have, does not follow from the principles underlying my holding, and might well itself give rise to a violation of the equality rights of those who do not fit that description but wish to commit suicide and need assistance. Therefore, I would eliminate that part of McEachern C.J.B.C.'s conditions for a court order granting the constitutional exemption [i.e., that the patient be "terminally ill and near death, and that there is no hope of recovering" - Ed.].

There is another aspect of McEachern C.J.B.C.'s order that has caused me concern. One of McEachern C.J.B.C.'s conditions is that the act of terminating the appellant's life be hers and not anyone else's. While I believe this to be appropriate in her current circumstances as a mechanism can be put in place allowing her to cause her own death with her limited physical capabilities, why should she be prevented the option of choosing suicide should her physical condition degenerate to the point where she is no longer even physically able to press a button or blow into a tube? Surely, it is in such circumstances that assistance is required most. Given that Ms. Rodriguez has not requested such an order, however, I need not decide the issue at this time. Therefore, I prefer to leave it to be resolved at a later date. . .


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