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New Canadian and US laws revive euthanasia debate

  • 17 May 2016


The euthanasia debate is alive and active.

On 9 June 2016, California will complete the west coast coverage of laws in the USA permitting physician assisted suicide for any mentally competent adult who is suffering 'an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed' and which will 'within reasonable medical judgment, result in death within six months'.

A new Canadian law will also come into effect on 6 June allowing any mentally competent adult who is suffering 'any grievous and irremediable medical condition' to seek assistance from a doctor with the preparation of a noxious potion. Under the Canadian law, the patient must have 'a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability', and be 'in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability'.

The patient must be 'enduring physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to them and that cannot be relieved under conditions that they consider acceptable'. Their natural death must be 'reasonably foreseeable, taking into account all of their medical circumstances'.

In both California and Canada, the plan is to permit doctors to help patients who can help themselves. The doctor prepares the potion, but the patient must administer it. Inevitably, in years to come, there will be debate whether these laws 'discriminate' against patients who cannot help themselves.

Euthanasia advocates will argue the doctor should be able to administer a lethal injection if requested by the patient, whether or not the patient is able to commit suicide with assistance. Pointing to the experience in Belgium and the Netherlands, they will also debate whether these laws 'discriminate' against persons who, though not dying, are still enduring unbearable and untreatable suffering.

They will invoke the language of autonomy, non-discrimination, and human rights, arguing that any mentally competent person has the right to end their life and the right to obtain assistance from a doctor ending their life in as painless and dignified a way as possible.

Countries like Canada, the US, the UK and Australia have been wrestling with this issue ever since the law was rightly changed to decriminalise attempted suicide. Previously it was a criminal offence to attempt suicide and it had always been an offence to assist someone to commit suicide. Needless to say, it was also an offence to kill someone.


"Prosecutors would rarely prosecute the compassionate spouse or the caring doctor; juries would hardly ever convict; and judges would not send the offender to jail."


The argument was that the state had an interest in trying