Rules governing Assisted Suicide as they Stand

Gloria Taylor lived in British Columbia and suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease. She wanted the right to end her life on her own terms. That was going to be difficult. She did not want to end her own life while it had quality. The disease was going to rob her of that quality of life. She would be locked in her body, unable to move. That would render her unable to commit suicide if and when she wanted to. She wanted the option, and did not want the disease to strip her of it. She would need assistance if and when she chose to end her life.

The Criminal Code made it illegal for anyone to provide that assistance. Suicide is legal, but only if you do it yourself. Taylor went to court and argued the law discriminated against her. By depriving her of help when she needed it, it deprived her of her ability to end her life. Her disability would stop her from doing what other able-bodied Canadians could do for themselves.

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The British Columbia Supreme Court sided with Taylor in a decision rendered June 15, 2012. The law was discriminatory and she was given the right to assisted suicide if and when she felt it necessary to do so. She was quoted as saying “This decision allows me to approach my death in the same way I’ve tried to live my life: with dignity, independence and grace.”

She never had to exercise the right the court gave her. She died of complications before making the decision to end her own life.

The case is under appeal and the decision is not effective at the moment. It is still illegal in Canada to assist someone in taking their own life.

What is legal? You can refuse medical treatment for yourself. You can do that even if the treatment would clearly save your life and the refusal will end it. What is more, you can appoint a person to make decisions for you after you are unable to do so yourself. You can give that person orders to refuse medical treatment on your behalf. Left untreated, even the simplest infection can be life-threatening. The appointment should take place under a valid legal document. The document is called by different names. It can be called a “personal directive,” a “power of attorney for personal care,” a “living will” or by a collection of other names largely depending on the province in which it is prepared.

It is also legal to include language in the document that allows for the administration of medication with the intention of reducing pain, and to do so even though that medication might have the incidental effect of hastening or causing death. Only a doctor can prescribe or administer that medication.

Finally, it can have language that directs your medical professionals to engage in palliative sedation.

That means giving you massive doses of sedatives during the last hours or days of life. The sedatives will render you completely unconscious and keep you that way. Again, only a doctor can prescribe or administer that medication.

Where does that leave you? If you have a dread disease, or simply want to be cautious, you can take steps now to make sure your end of life is as quick and painless as possible. Have a personal directive put in place by a lawyer. Make sure it goes as far as is legally possible relating to the refusal of treatment, pain medication and, perhaps, palliative sedation. Then talk to the person you have appointed and tell them you are deadly serious about your wishes.

Meanwhile, you can cross your fingers and hope the law changes as the Taylor case winds its way through the court system.

If you have the money, you can go to Switzerland. Assisted suicide is legal there, even for non-residents, under strictly controlled circumstances.

John E. S. Poyser is a lawyer with Tradition Law LLP. Contact him at 204-947-6802 or [email protected], or visit

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