Carter Case Summary

A summary of the Carter court case in British Columbia

Carter v. Attorney General of Canada is a legal case focusing on Gloria Taylor’s request to have a doctor’s help to die. Taylor had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

In June of 2012, a court in British Columbia ruled that Canada’s law prohibiting assisted suicide was unconstitutional.  The court decided that, contrary to the Supreme Court’s 1993 ruling in the Rodriguez case, laws allowing assisted suicide and euthanasia in the U.S. (and elsewhere) showed these practices posed no danger to people with disabilities.  According to the judge, this information was reason enough to reconsider and overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rodriguez. The BC court determined that the government didn’t have to prohibit all assisted suicides in order to achieve its goal of protecting disabled people from harm.

Finally, the court reached the conclusion that the law prohibiting assisted suicide was discriminatory. People with disabilities might be unable to commit suicide on their own if they become seriously ill. They would be forced to kill themselves while they still had the capacity to do so – sooner than they would wish – and thus lose a few months at the end of life. This loss violated the plaintiffs’ right to life as guaranteed by the Charter. [1]

The judge did not take into account that non-disabled people are steered toward suicide prevention programs, while people with disabilities who ask to die are offered assisted suicide.  Nor did she recognize the impact of institutionalization, discrimination and abuse in pushing disabled people toward suicide.

The case was appealed in BC, and arguments were made in March of 2013.  The appeals court found that the lower court was bound by the decision in Rodriguez and had overstepped its authority by overruling that judgment [2],  so the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme court.

In the fall of 2014, Carter was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.

On February 6, 2015, The Supreme Court judges voted unanimously to remove the Criminal Code’s assisted suicide prohibition. The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that the ban was unconstitutional because it violated the Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person [3]. The Court held that assisted suicide should be allowed for “a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.” [4]

Parliament was given twelve months to draft legislation regulating the practice of physician assisted dying. However, a federal election made a four-month extension necessary. Bill C-14 became law in June 2016. Canadians seeking assisted suicide must be at least 18 years old and have a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” causing “enduring physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable.” In addition, the person’s condition should have reached “an advanced state of irreversible decline” so that their death is “reasonably foreseeable.”

[1] Carter v. Canada (Attorney General) 2012 BCSC 886. at para 1322.

[2] Carter v. Canada (Attorney General) 2013 BCCA 435 at para 316

[3] Carter v. Canada (Attorney General) 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, at para 56

[4] ibid at para 147