Assisted-suicide debate hits Vancouver courtroom

Sue Rodgriguez, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease, is arguing for her right to an assisted suicide. It's a debate that divides the country.

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A new right-to-die law may give people another tool to abuse the elderly, especially when money is involved, he said.

"We simply don't know how to get a handle on the abuse right now, and what's being proposed simply opens up an entirely new avenue for potential victimization and abuse,'' said Johnston, a family doctor.

"We're in the middle of the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history. So there is simply an excessive motivation, it seems, for often family members to do things that aren't really in the best interest of the elderly.''

Along with delivering babies and providing palliative care for dying patients, Johnston is also hired by lawyers to do competency or capability assessments on elderly or ill people.

He said he can think of at least 10 elder abuse cases involving people whose family members were trying to get their wills changed or bilk them of their savings by suggesting their elderly relatives weren't capable of making such decisions.

"There's nothing in the Carter-Taylor case which would prevent people who would benefit from the death of the person from proposing the suicide to them, arranging it or facilitating it, being there at the time of death. There's no requirement for third-party witnesses.''

He said that since about 1996, it's been legal in Oregon for pharmacies to dispense lethal drugs for doctor-assisted suicides but there's no requirement of a witness or supervision when the drugs are administered and no statistics to gauge how the law is working.

"One thing that does emerge, which is interesting, is that people who are dying are affluent. And this is consistent with the situation of elder abuse.''

In Canada, it's illegal to counsel, aid or abet a person to commit suicide and the offence carries a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison.

Noon update:

VANCOUVER -- A B.C. Supreme Court judge began hearing arguments Monday over whether Canada's laws against assisted suicide should be struck down, critics of the practice protested.

Joe Arvay, a lawyer for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, told the court there is a wealth of new evidence supporting the right to die since the high court rejected Sue Rodriguez in her efforts to get help to end her life 18 years ago.

Arvay told the court he's confident that once all the evidence is completed, the judge will find Canada's ban on assisted suicide unconstitutional.

Arvay is representing Gloria Taylor, 63, and four others in their argument against laws that make it a criminal offence to help seriously ill people end their lives.

Taylor suffers from ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, an incurable illness that gradually weakens and degenerates muscles to the point of paralysis. The case was fast-tracked because of her deteriorating condition.

Outside the court, about two dozen people protested.

John Coppard, who's recovering from brain cancer, said a new drug saved his life.

He said giving people an option of assisted suicide would be a mistake and the current laws exist to protect Canadians.

"I'm out here because I'm really concerned about what's going on inside there,'' he said.

"I qualify under what they're proposing in there. I think they're playing with my life. I'm really concerned because I've been through rough points, like a lot of people with what I have.''

Coppard said he worries that legalizing assisted suicide would make it too easy for people -- including doctors -- to give up the fight for health and take a fast exist out of life.

"I just bought a boat. I plan on sticking around for a while and I really hope Gloria Taylor does too.''

Taylor's lawyers are expected to argue that since the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the law in the Rodriguez case in 1993, much has changed.

They argue other jurisdictions such as Oregon, Washington and Belgium have adopted laws to permit assisted suicide while guarding against people being influenced or pushed into planning their own deaths.

But Dr. Will Johnston, a Vancouver physician who is a spokesman for the B.C. chapter of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of Canada, said it's not clear whether those safeguards are working.

Johnston, who attended Monday's protest, said there is no requirement for a witness to be present at an assisted death in Oregon.

"We have no idea how many of the deaths in Oregon are truly voluntary. People change their mind all the time,'' he said.

"We have jurisdictions like Holland where an official government report has documented literally thousands of deaths where there is no evidence that guidelines were followed or that there was any formal request for assisted suicide.''

He noted that Scotland and Australia have gone through the same examination of their laws as Canada is now doing and have rejected enabling assisted suicide.

He cautioned the court against "allowing ourselves to be completely ruled by empathy and compassion for one or two poster cases or poster illnesses.''

Federal government lawyer Donnaree Nygard told the court in her opening statement that the potential harm of striking down the law is irreversible and would put the elderly, the depressed and the disabled at risk.

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