Newfoundland man to seek province's first court-approved assisted death

The unnamed man over the age of 65 has suffered from pain caused by prostate cancer for a number of years

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – A Newfoundland man who wants to end his life after years of battling cancer is searching for a doctor to sign off on the province’s first court-approved assisted death.

Lawyer Kyle Rees of St. John’s said Friday his unnamed client is a man over the age of 65 who has suffered from pain caused by prostate cancer for a number of years.

“Once we make this application in court he’s looking for a physician who will prescribe for him the medication that will allow for him to end his suffering if it comes to that,” said Rees.

Under provincial supreme court guidelines, two doctors must sign affidavits supporting the court application. Rees said his client’s attending physician has already done so, and he’s now appealing for another doctor to come forward.

“The second physician . . . would also say in the affidavit that yes I will be the doctor writing the prescription, I will be the doctor administering the medication and that’s been the tricky part,” said Rees.

He said he doesn’t believe the lengthier search is the result of any deep-seated opposition in the medical community.

“I just hope somebody can understand my client’s position,” he said.

Rees said the man is in great pain and has exhausted all avenues of potential treatment including palliative care.

Daryl Pullman, a professor of medical ethics at Memorial University in St. John’s, said a potential problem in this case is the fact that there would only be a small subset of doctors available who are familiar enough with the drugs that would be involved.

“Many physicians simply by virtue of the area in which they work, they don’t do that kind of stuff,” said Pullman. “The first thing is just the physician’s level of comfort with being able to handle the drug.”

Pullman said there could also be practical issues around getting permission for the off-label use of the drugs required.

Rees said once he finds another doctor he doesn’t expect that it would take very long to hear the case in court.

By pressing forward, he said he wants to show others that it is possible to seek a physician assisted death.

“There doesn’t need to be a lot of mystery around it and there doesn’t need to be a lot of fear around it. The easier it is for individuals to get access to this — the fairer the whole process is.”

Aside from setting a precedent, Rees said the court application is really about helping his client by giving him peace of mind.

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the ban on doctor assisted deaths in February 2015 and gave the federal government a year to come up with a new law _ a deadline that was extended by four months until this June.

That decision allowed competent terminally ill people to apply to provincial supreme courts for the right to die ahead of the new legislation.

Court approval has since been granted in a small number of cases in other provinces including Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario.