Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Do we have a right to assisted suicide?

  • 05 November 2014

Physician assisted suicide and euthanasia are back in the courts of Canada and the United Kingdom, and back in the parliaments of the United Kingdom and Australia. Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada finished hearing a case in which the applicants claim that a 1993 Supreme Court decision upholding the criminal ban on euthanasia should be overruled. On Friday, the House of Lords will resume debate on Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill. 

Their Lordships will be looking forward to what they think is the appropriate law and policy on assisted suicide, while looking back at a recent decision of the UK Supreme Court which has said there is a need to consider the European Convention on Human Rights’ requirement that everyone is entitled to respect for their private life. Next Monday, the Australian Senate will receive a committee report on the Greens’ appallingly drafted Medical Services (Dying with Dignity) Exposure Draft Bill 2014.

A word about each development. No law is ever perfect. Any law can work an injustice in a particular case. That’s why we have prosecutors and courts which can exercise discretion. Wherever you draw the line in criminal law, there will always be just and compassionate exceptions you would want to see made on one side of the line, without always moving the line and starting the exercise again. Until 50 years ago, attempted suicide was a criminal offence. Seeing there were better ways to dissuade people from attempting suicide and acknowledging that no purpose was to be served by punishing someone who failed to kill themselves, parliaments abolished the offence of attempted suicide, while retaining the offence of assisting someone else with their own suicide. 

With developments in medical technology, patients could avail themselves of life sustaining procedures like respirators. Exercising their autonomy, patients were entitled to ask that the respirator be turned off. If death resulted, the doctor was not liable. In 1993, the Canadian Supreme Court said there was a world of difference between turning off life support at the request of a rational, competent, non-depressed patient and administering a lethal injection to such a patient. The first was allowed; the second was not.

The Canadian Supreme Court has now been asked to rule that the distinction between withdrawing life support and administering a lethal injection is ethically contested and contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone the right to life and