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Panel recommends that assisted suicide be legalised in Canada

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 18 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7496
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

Assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia should be legalised in Canada, an expert panel set up by the Royal Society of Canada has concluded after a two year study.

“We are recommending that the criminal code be changed in such a way as to permit physician assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia,” said Udo Schuklenk, a bioethicist from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who chaired the panel of six Canadian and international experts.

The panel on decision making at the end of life called for a “permissive yet carefully regulated and monitored” system that would include a national oversight commission to monitor and report annually on the use of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. After analysing experience in the seven jurisdictions worldwide that currently allow assisted dying—the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the US states of Oregon, Washington, and Montana—the panel concluded that fears of legalisation leading to pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives involuntarily were unwarranted.

“The evidence from years of experience and research where euthanasia and/or assisted suicide are permitted does not support claims that decriminalisation will result in vulnerable persons being subjected to abuse or a slippery slope from voluntary to non-voluntary euthanasia,” says a summary of the findings.

The panel, which included a British expert on bioethics and law, Sheila McLean of Glasgow University, said that assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia should be available, and not just assisted suicide, as in Oregon and Washington states. There was no “morally significant difference” between the two, said the report, which was peer reviewed.

The report urged against limiting assisted dying to people who are terminally ill, arguing that there was “no principled basis for excluding people suffering greatly and permanently, but not imminently dying.” It also called for legal uncertainties about terminal sedation to be resolved and for guidelines on it to be formulated and implemented.

The recommendations came a day after British Columbia’s Supreme Court started to hear evidence in a right to die case brought by the province’s Civil Liberties Association and several individuals, including Gloria Taylor, a 63 year old woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis who seeks help in ending her life. The province’s attorney general and the federal government oppose a change in the law.

The US state of Montana has not had legislation on assisted suicide, but in 2009 the state’s Supreme Court decided that a terminally ill patient’s consent to physician assisted suicide was a defence to a charge of homicide.

In Britain the independent Commission on Assisted Dying, chaired by the former lord chancellor Charles Falconer, is due to report in early January on whether the law should be changed in England and Wales (BMJ 2011;342:d1975, doi:10.1136/bmj.d1975).


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7496

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