TORONTO — The identities of any doctors who might help a terminally ill man kill himself can be kept secret, an Ontario court ruled Monday.
In agreeing to the man’s request for anonymity, Superior Court Justice Thomas McEwen said confidentiality orders in this case were needed to avoid unwanted publicity and media attention for the man, his family and the doctors involved.
The man, 80, identified only as A.B., will be seeking a constitutional exemption later this month for a doctor-assisted suicide in the first such request in Ontario.
A.B. and his family did not ask for the hearing itself to be held in secret. They only wanted anonymity for themselves and the doctors.
“Cases involving physician-assisted suicide warrant such restrictions,” McEwen said in his written ruling. “The (man’s) proposal is a reasonable compromise.”
At a hearing last week, a group of news outlets agreed the identities of the man and his relatives should remain private but opposed secrecy for the doctors who help him die.
McEwen said the man’s position struck a balance between the open-court principle and the right of the man and his family to maintain their privacy and dignity.
There are also good reasons to black out the names of the physicians as well, the justice said.
“The physicians wish to maintain anonymity because of personal and professional implications,” McEwen said. “Their wish and concerns are entirely reasonable, in my opinion, given the publicity and controversy surrounding physician-assisted death.”
McEwen said adverse publicity might dissuade doctors from helping others. He also said he was not concerned doctors might become “rubber-stamps” for assisted deaths given the role the courts must still play in approving requests for such help.
The decision calls for an unredacted court record — along with explanations as to why any information was blacked out — to be put to the judge hearing the case. It will be up to that judge to make any changes. Media will also be able to make submissions at that time if they want.
According to his affidavit, the man was diagnosed with advanced aggressive lymphoma in 2012, a terminal condition that has left him in ‘intolerable pain and distress that cannot be alleviated.”
He argued he could only “die with dignity” away from a blaze of unwanted publicity. He and his family also worried about unwanted harassment from those opposed to assisted suicide.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down laws that made it a criminal offence for doctors to help someone die.
The court gave the government a year to rewrite the laws. However, unable to meet the deadline, the government asked the court for an extension. The courts granted another four months, but said the terminally ill could apply to superior courts for an exemption to the ban during that period.