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Shoddy reasoning, elitist pretensions underlie Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to overturn law against assisted suicide

by | Mar 5, 2015

By Dave Andrusko

Supreme Court of Canada

Supreme Court of Canada

NRL News Today has carried extensive coverage of the Supreme Court of Canada’s fateful February 6 decision gutting Canada’s law against assisted suicide. NRLC’s Burke Balch, JD, provided as good a two-paragraph summary as you could ask for:

Unlike doctor-prescribed suicide laws in Oregon, Washington and Vermont that theoretically are limited to those with terminal illness, the sweeping ruling allows killing any Canadian who “has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”

“Irremediable,” the court stressed, “does not require the patient to undertake treatments that are not acceptable to the individual.”

An additional perspective—also 100% against the decision in Carter v. Canada—came from Kevin Yuill, author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation.

You can read his entirely persuasive piece in its entirety on Spiked Online. So let me highlight five considerations.

#1. Yuill begins by quoting a lawyer representing the appellants who said, “When parliament is paralysed, the courts must act.” Actually, that does not follow at all, but it is the kind of leap of logic that judicial activists—here or north of the border—use to tear up laws that have been on the books for just short of forever. Yuill argues

The ruling highlights the trend towards an ‘enlightened’ elite imposing what it thinks is right over the heads of political representatives. The SCC [Supreme Court of Canada] is hardly democratic – the justices are all appointees and are chosen to represent the various regions. None of them have been elected to any office outside of their profession.

However, this will not stop proponents of assisted suicide from claiming there is democratic mandate for legalisation, quoting various polls that claim the public agrees with them.

By the way a primary reason a legislative body may be “paralyzed” is because legislators understand that loaded questions used in surveys may not tell us where the public is on an issue. Yuill cites the results of a 2013 Gallup poll which showed dramatically different results depending on how the question is asked. He offers other polls from other nations that illustrate the same truth: it’s how you ask the question.

#2. So it shouldn’t surprise us that a real back-and-forth is the last thing proponents of assisted suicide are looking for:

What advocates of assisted suicide really fear is any real discussion of the issue; their case falls to pieces when subjected to any real scrutiny. They rely on sad stories, on our instantaneous response to suffering. But, in parallel to the fact that doctors and especially palliative doctors oppose legalisation, the public, when forced to consider the case more broadly, tend to reject assisted suicide. (For a demonstration that even the most sophisticated assisted-suicide advocates lose support in an open debate, see Peter Singer and Andrew Solomon vs Ilora Finlay and Daniel Sulmasy.)

#3. Proponents love the “autonomy” argument, a variation of the “It’s my body” mantra. Yuill makes short work of that:

Another example of the court’s shoddy thinking was the assumption it made that autonomy implies that the state must assist people to die. It doesn’t take a jurist to see that though [even if] it is right to legalise suicide, so that no one has a duty to live, that does not imply that the state has a duty to assist suicide.

#4. Carter v. Canada rests on “some fundamentally flawed arguments.” Yuill shrewdly observes

One particular assertion made by the court beggars belief: ‘The prohibition [of assisted suicide] deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable.’ There is simply no evidence to support this. In fact, there is evidence presented by advocates of assisted suicide in the UK that indicates legalising assisted suicide will increase the suicide rate among the terminally ill three-fold. A study of Danish cancer patients between 1971 and 1999 found that an estimated average of 31 cancer sufferers per year took their lives. If assisted suicide was legalised, the Oregon statistics suggest that the number would rise to 67. In other words, all evidence indicates that suicides will increase by a factor of two or three should legalisation occur. This crucial point, on which the court’s decision was based, is simply wrong. …

Using torturous, Orwellian logic, the SCC has now defined the right to die as a natural part of the right to life. Therefore, the logic of the ruling was based on the idea that death is a part of life – it’s not, it is the end of it – and that we must protect Canadians’ right to life, liberty and security by killing people on request. Wow.

#5. When the SCC issued its ruling, it gave the government 12 months to draft a replacement law. Yuill concludes

With this ruling, the SCC has opened up a Pandora’s box. However, it can easily be closed if parliament chooses to invoke the notwithstanding clause, whereby parliament can override a decision made by the SCC. This is not an easy decision to make, but one that is necessary if the Canadian government wishes to uphold the equal value of human life and to ensure that, though suicide is legal, it receives no moral approval or assistance from the state.

Categories: Assisted Suicide