Opinion Canada is edging toward creating a right to suicide

(Chloe Cushman for The Washington Post)

Shortly after Robin Williams died by suicide on Aug. 11, 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted an image of Aladdin tearfully hugging Williams’s character from the iconic Disney film. “Genie, you’re free,” read the caption. The tweet, as The Post’s Caitlin Dewey noted at the time, carried the “implication that suicide is somehow a liberating option” and was promptly blasted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, whose chief medical officer warned “suicide should never be presented as an option.”

In Canada, however, consensus seems to be consolidating around a different conclusion: Suicide is, in fact, a liberating, acceptable option for whoever wants it.

Medical assistance in dying (MAID) is legal in Canada thanks to the country’s mercurial judiciary, which has, over the years, slowly constructed a constitutional right for Canadians to die by suicide.

In 1972, Canada’s laws criminalizing attempted suicide were quietly rescinded by Parliament, though the legislators’ motivations were debated: Was Parliament saying suicide was not morally worthy of being a crime, or was the ban just too impractical to enforce? Evidence against the former was found in the fact that prohibitions against encouraging or “aiding” a suicide remained on the books, along with an explicit provision that no right existed to “consent” to one’s death at the hands of another.

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In 1993, following a high-profile case involving a terminally ill woman who wished to obtain legal permission for a doctor-assisted death, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 5-4 in favor of upholding these prohibitions, declaring that “seeking to control the manner and timing of one’s death constitutes a conscious choice of death over life” and a “right to life” is guaranteed by the Canadian constitution. “Parliament’s repeal of the offence of attempted suicide from the Criminal Code,” said the majority, “was not a recognition that suicide was to be accepted within Canadian society.”

In 2015, however, the court reversed itself in a unanimous decision, embracing the argument of the 1993 dissenters that the constitution’s right to life did not mandate a “duty to live” but instead “encompasses life, liberty and security of the person during the passage to death.” The court ordered Parliament to pass a new law, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal majority obliged, crafting a narrow right to medically assisted death for Canadians in an “advanced state of irreversible decline” with “reasonable foreseeability of natural death.” The stipulations helped enshrine assisted suicide as a tool to expedite the “passage” to death, as the court described — not to instigate it unprovoked.

The rigidity of this permission structure, however, gave the Superior Court of Quebec pretext to overturn Trudeau’s legislation in 2019, declaring it unconstitutionally discriminatory to make the right to die conditional on having a fatal medical condition. Rather than appeal the ruling, Trudeau’s government responded last year by watering down its legislation, making the right to pursue suicide broader. A Canadian is now entitled to a medically assisted death so long as they “have a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability” with symptoms “that cannot be relieved under conditions that they consider acceptable.” The Liberal government has promised that at some point, mental illness will be officially folded into the definition of “serious and incurable.”

To be sure, the amended legislation still outlines complex “safeguards” for permitting assisted death, including mandatory medical assessments, doctor sign-offs and the confirmation of an “independent witness.” And yet, in recent weeks the papers have nevertheless been filled with stories of what the first year of Canada’s new MAID regime has been like in practice: strikingly popular, with 10,064 medically-assisted voluntary deaths in 2021. As Alexander Raikin noted recently in a well-reported essay for the New Atlantis, California — with its own assisted suicide program and about the same population as Canada (nearly 40 million) — had only 486 such deaths in the same period. There’s substantial evidence, Raikin wrote, that Canada’s assisted dying regime — which he characterized as “the most permissive” in the world — is being amply used not just by people enduring physical suffering, but by the poor, lonely and outcast as a way of escaping the general hardship of their lives.

Canada is a country whose political process no longer seems capable of discussing “social issues.” Politicians believe debates over heady moral questions are a turnoff to voters, while an imperious judiciary decrees policy prescriptions that are too strict and particular for Parliament ever to reverse, even if the politicians had the appetite to try.

Polls indicate the public tends to be supportive of medically assisted dying in the abstract, but more hesitant and divided when it comes to the details of implementing such a policy — whether the mentally ill should be eligible, for instance — and generally ignorant of the state of current rules.

In other words, the reasonable conclusion to draw is that ever-greater liberalization will likely continue, just because it’s hardly obvious who would try to stop it. In a short time, Canada might well recognize suicide as a choice every person has an affirmative right to make for any reason, with the state assisting and never judging.

Amid the world’s increasingly lurid fascination with Canada’s MAID policies, other nations can do with this information what they wish. Canada has chosen to be a calibration point on one end of the spectrum.

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