End-of-Life Issues

Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

Under review

There are many definitions of euthanasia. But for purposes of this document, we will adopt the definition proposed by the Law Reform Commission of Canada in 1982 in which euthanasia is defined as a “positive act causing the death of a person for humanitarian reasons. Unlike death caused by the illness itself or by the cessation of treatment of a given disease, euthanasia, as matters stand now, is a voluntary and deliberate act causing death in the context of providing relief to a person suffering from an incurable terminal illness or experiencing unmanageable suffering. It is generally performed by administering a lethal dose of a medication. We speak of  euthanasia when the medication is administered by a health professional, and of assisted suicide when the patient himself administers the medication prepared beforehand for this purpose by a professional.

In legal terms in Canada, both are considered to be criminal acts of first- or seconddegree murder (Criminal Code, sec. 229). The legislation takes into account the intent to kill and not the motive that inspired the intent. The law does not recognize the merits of the “murder by compassion” concept.

Within the present legal framework, be it for euthanasia or assisted suicide, the consent of the victim has no influence on  the criminal liability of the author. The Criminal Code stipulates the following:

“No person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him.” (sec. 14)

“Everyone who  a) counsels a person to commit suicide or  b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether the suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.” (sec. 241)

The medical clinician must appropriately interpret a patient’s request expressing the wish to die. According to some, a request of this kind conceals distress and solitude, or again, reflects depression, from which people in the terminal phase of life are not immune. For others, these requests express the reasonable and conscious wish of a person who does not wish to unduly prolong his life, who wishes to control his situation, or who no longer wishes to be a burden and who is asking to be relieved of the pain and the agony. Whatever the motive, the point of view of the patient should always be at the heart of the debate, even if, at the moment, society does not always choose to respect it.