Achieving Medically Assisted Death
Section 241.1 of the Criminal Code sets out a detailed procedure for determining when medical assistance in dying can be provided. However, the medical and legal communities are still grappling with the application of the provisions.
In A.B. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2017 ONSC 3759 (CanLII), two physicians concluded that AB met the criteria for a medically assisted death. A third doctor, however, did not, as he felt that AB did not meet the Criminal Code requirement that a natural death was reasonably foreseeable. Although only two medical opinions are required, the opinion of the third doctor had a chilling effect on one of the other physicians, who declined to provide assistance to AB for fear of being charged with murder.
AB then applied to court for a determination that she met the requirements of the Criminal Code, and a declaration that she may receive medical assistance in dying.
Justice Perell, who had previously considered the issue of assisted death in another proceeding, heard the application.
Ontario and Canada took the position that a declaration should not issue, as the regime established by the Criminal Code does not require judicial pre-authorization. Further, the civil courts should not issue a declaration as such a declaration would interfere with the prosecutorial discretion of the Crown by predetermining criminal liability.
Justice Perell agreed with the position of Ontario and Canada. However, he felt that their position was “as unhelpful as it is technically correct.” The practical effect of such a position was that AB qualified for medically assisted death, but no physician was prepared to assist.
In his decision, Perell J. thoroughly reviews the legislative history of medical assistance in dying. He agrees that it is the medical practitioner and not the court that is to decide whether the Criminal Code criteria are satisfied. He agrees that the court cannot make the decision for them.
However, Perell J. expresses that some form of declaration would be “useful” and have “utility”.
Perell J. walks a fine line in his decision. He accepts that the court is not to make declarations that the Criminal Code criteria for assisted death are met: that must be done by the medical practitioner or nurse practitioner: s. 241.2(3)(a). What Perell J. does, however, is attempt to clarify what is meant by s. 241.(2)(d): the provision that requires the person to meet the criteria that “their natural death has become reasonably foreseeable”. As a matter of statutory interpretation, he declares that in AB’s case, AB’s natural death is reasonably foreseeable.
Perell J. cautions that in making a declaration, he is not conferring immunity on the physicians from prosecution. He also states that he is not finding that courts could or should grant pre-approvals for persons seeking medical assistance in dying. It is unclear as to whether this will provide much comfort to medical practitioners.
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