Appeal Court upholds exemption from doctor-assisted suicide ban

Gloria Taylor's right to avoid a "frightening and repugnant" death in the clutches of Lou Gehrig’s disease shouldn't be sacrificed because the courts have yet to decide the fate of Canada's doctor-assisted suicide ban, a judge ruled Friday.

VANCOUVER – Gloria Taylor’s right to avoid a “frightening and repugnant” death in the clutches of Lou Gehrig’s disease shouldn’t be sacrificed because the courts have yet to decide the fate of Canada’s doctor-assisted suicide ban, a judge ruled Friday as she upheld the British Columbia woman’s personal exemption from the law.

The woman from West Kelowna, B.C., who was diagnosed with ALS three years ago and whose health continues to deteriorate, was among the plaintiffs in a landmark case that saw the B.C. Supreme Court strike down Canada’s ban on doctor-assisted suicide as unconstitutional.

While the court suspended its decision, Taylor was granted an immediate exemption, making her the only person in Canada who can legally die with the help of a doctor.

The federal government launched an appeal of that decision and also asked the Appeal Court to revoke Taylor’s exemption until the case is heard.

However, Justice Jo-Ann Prowse ruled Friday that taking away Taylor’s exemption would cause her irreparable harm, outweighing the interests of the federal government and the public in preventing a single case of doctor-assisted suicide.

“I accept that the exemption has important symbolic and, perhaps, psychological, value, which extends beyond Ms. Taylor to those who are similarly situated, whether or not they agree with the decision under appeal,” Justice Jo-Ann Prowse wrote in a decision released Friday.

“She may be a symbol, but she is also a person,” the judge continued later, “and I do not find that it is necessary for the individual to be sacrificed to a concept of the ‘greater good,’ which may, or may not, be fully informed.”

In June, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the current law violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The judge in the case concluded the law must allow physician-assisted suicide in cases involving patients who are diagnosed with a serious illness or disability and who are experiencing “intolerable” physical or psychological suffering with no chance of improvement.

Taylor has said she’s made no decisions about ending her life. She has yet to take any formal steps to use her exemption, which would require an application to the B.C. Supreme Court, her lawyer, Sheila Tucker, confirmed Friday.

“She will be delighted” with the decision, Tucker said in an interview.

“We’re particularly pleased with the fact that the court was very cognisant of the fact that, for Gloria, it really is a case of irreparable harm, because she’ll either get to use that exemption and have the value of that exemption now or she never will.”

In the Appeal Court ruling, Prowse noted Taylor, who in January 2010 was told she had one year to live, may not survive to see the end of the case, which is almost certainly destined for the Supreme Court of Canada.

If the exemption were removed and Taylor’s health continued to decline, “all of her worst fears would be realized and she would be forced to endure the very death which she has fought so assiduously to avoid,” wrote Prowse.

The B.C. Supreme Court decision was suspended for one year to give Parliament time to fix the law, but the Appeal Court has extended that suspension until after it renders its decision.

The appeal is expected to be heard next spring.

If the case ends up before the Supreme Court of Canada, it won’t be the first time the country’s highest court has tackled the issue of assisted suicide.

The court heard a case two decades ago involving Sue Rodriguez, who also had ALS and wanted help from a doctor to end her life. The court ruled against her in 1993, though she killed herself anyway with the help of an unidentified physician the following year.

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