Victoria’s John Priddle is fighting against an incurable disease and the federal government’s delay in legislating his right and the right of others to make the choice of a dignified doctor-assisted death — or not.
On Friday, the Supreme Court added four months to the federal government’s Feb. 6 deadline for producing a new law on doctor-assisted death, but with an exemption for anyone who wants to ask a judge to end their life earlier.
In a landmark unanimous decision last year, the court ruled in favour of the right of consenting adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to end their lives with a doctor’s help.
The court suspended its decision for a year to give Parliament a chance to figure out how to respond to the ruling. The government requested a six-month extension. The four-month extension it was given excludes Quebec, which has its own law.
“In agreeing that more time is needed, we do not at the same time see any need to unfairly prolong the suffering of those who meet the clear criteria,” the court wrote in a 5-4 decision on the extension application.
Priddle, 63, has Friedreich’s ataxia. The rare inherited disease causes damage to the nervous system and results in loss of voluntary and involuntary muscle control. It does not affect cognitive function.
Priddle received the diagnosis on June 6, 2000, at the age of 48.
“I woke up that morning not knowing I was disabled or had a terminal disease,” he said. “That’s how it can happen and it can happen to you at any time.”
The former business professor no longer works. He walks with a sturdy cane to maintain his balance. His speech is slightly slurred as he loses muscle control of the left side of his face. “My world is shrinking constantly.”
Priddle fears the day he is unaware of his circumstances, when is unable to get out of bed and soils himself. He doesn’t want his wife of 35 years condemned to care for him in that state.
He is disappointed by the delay granted by the Supreme Court and concerned about how complicated it might be for a person suffering intolerable pain to make a personal application to the court.
“Do you know how to make an application to the court? And if you were at the end of your life — can you imagine?” Priddle said. “It sounds like another delay now, for a year and a third.”
He questioned how easy it would be get an exemption. And how would B.C. enable someone to access physician-assisted dying if a superior court judge grants an exemption?
Priddle’s disease is progressing slower than doctors expected and he doesn’t plan to exercise his choice for some time, if ever. But he wants those who want to make that choice now to be able to access it in a timely and compassionate way.
The joint parliamentary committee that’s examining the divisive issue of doctor-assisted death is scheduled to have its first meeting on Monday morning.
Victoria MP Murray Rankin is one of the 11 MPs — six Liberals, three Conservatives and two New Democrat MPs — who will join five senators on a panel to consult Canadians on how to bring in a new law on assisted dying.
“I’m pleased the Supreme Court of Canada ruling shows sensitivity to those suffering right now by providing a way for individuals to seek exemptions until our parliamentary committee completes its work,” Rankin said on Friday.
Rankin blamed the delays on the foot-dragging of the former Conservative government and said the committee now needs time to consult with Canadians.
The Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to make it a crime for doctors to assist dying for “competent adults who consent to the termination of their life because of a ‘grievous and irremediable’ medical condition that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the person.”
Rankin said words such as “competent” adults and “irremediable” need to be clarified and important questions need to be addressed.
Also, the interplay between the federal government and the provinces, which regulate doctors, is important, Rankin said. He cited the example of protection for doctors who choose not to provide the service.
B.C. NDP health critic Judy Darcy called on the provincial government to follow Ontario’s lead and begin preparing for new laws around end-of-life care — a stance Priddle agrees with.
Darcy said Friday’s decision only serves to underscore the failure by the B.C. government to take decisive action toward effective regulations to address dying with dignity.
“The select standing committee on health, of which I was deputy chair, heard from hundreds of stakeholders from around the province last year,” Darcy said. “We crafted a thoughtful and balanced report, one which was almost unanimously supported by committee members of both parties.”
But Christy Clark’s government decided to defer and delay, Darcy said.
The province said it appreciates the Supreme Court’s decision to grant an extension to the federal government and looks forward to the work of the all-party special parliamentary committee.
“We still need clarification on any plans to amend the Criminal Code, and which aspects of physician assisted dying legislation will be federal and which will be provincial or territorial,” said Health Ministry spokeswoman Sarah Plank.
“It would be premature and counter-productive for B.C. to move forward before these [committee] discussions take place.”
— With files from The Canadian Press
Members of committee on assisted death
The joint parliamentary committee on physician-assisted dying:
• James Cowan (Liberal)
• Serge Joyal (Liberal)
• Nancy Ruth (Conservative)
• Kelvin Ogilvie (Conservative)
• Judith Seidman (Conservative)
• John Aldag (Liberal, Cloverdale-Langley City)
• René Arseneault (Liberal, Madawaska-Restigouche)
• Steven Blaney (Conservative, Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis)
• Michael Cooper (Conservative, St. Albert-Edmonton)
• Julie Dabrusin (Liberal, Toronto-Danforth)
• Denis Lemieux (Liberal, Chicoutimi-Le Fjord)
• Robert Oliphant (Liberal, Don Valley West)
• Murray Rankin (NDP, Victoria)
• Brigitte Sansoucy (NDP, Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot)
• Brenda Shanahan (Liberal, Châteauguay-Lacolle)
• Mark Warawa (Conservative, Langley-Aldergrove)
— The Canadian Press