Terminally-ill man pleads for permanent law change to allow assisted death

An elderly man who won court approval Thursday to have a doctor help him die — likely this weekend — pleaded with the government to change the law permanently to legalize doctor-assisted deaths.

TORONTO — An elderly man who won court approval Thursday to have a doctor help him die — likely this weekend — pleaded with the government to change the law permanently to legalize doctor-assisted deaths.

In a statement read to the court, the terminally ill man, 81, said he had lived a long and wonderful life but was troubled with the current legal situation.

“My only regret in these last months is that my family and I have had to expend what little energy I have left to fight this court battle,” the man, who can only be identified as A.B., said in the statement.

“My wish is that our government will see fit to make permanent changes in the law so that no other family will have to do this ever again.”

In the first such case in Ontario — and the third in Canada outside Quebec — Superior Court Justice Paul Perell approved A.B.’s request for an exemption to Criminal Code provisions on assisted suicide under a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

The approval, which followed a 30-minute hearing, was unopposed by the federal and provincial governments.

Perell also agreed to the man’s request that his death be classified as caused by disease, obviating the need to notify the coroner as would normally be required. The man and his family opposed coroner involvement given that it could lead to police involvement, an unnecessary autopsy or toxicology tests.

In brief submissions to the court, A.B.’s lawyer Andrew Faith stressed that the condition of his client, diagnosed with lymphoma in 2012, was worsening, leading to urgency in the need for the court approval.

“He would like to be in a position to avail himself of this relief this weekend,” Faith told the court.

Perell did express some unease with the idea that the coroner could be bypassed in all assisted-death cases — noting a case could arise in which someone was severely disabled rather than terminally ill. Faith said Thursday’s decision was based only on the specific circumstances of his client.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down laws that bar doctors from helping someone die, but put the ruling on hold for one year. In February, the court granted the federal government a four-month extension, but said the terminally ill could ask the courts for an exemption to the ban during that period. Quebec set up its own legislative regime on assisted death in December.

In lengthy oral reasons in which he appeared at times to become emotional, Perell said the man’s condition and circumstances met the Supreme Court’s criteria for the exemption. Those conditions include being mentally competent, in extreme pain, and making the assisted-death request without coercion or manipulation. The judge also noted the man’s family and doctors supported his request.

“A.B. deposes that his suffering is intolerable and unbearable,” the judge said, adding that granting the exemption was “not a routine exercise.”

The plan, now, is for doctors to follow the “Quebec protocol” — essentially helping the man die by lethal injection. Court heard that oral drugs used in Oregon assisted deaths are simply not available in Ontario in the required doses. The three-step plan involves sedating the man, putting him into a deep coma, then giving him a deadly dose of a drug that will stop his heart and breathing.

“I believe firmly in the right to die with dignity and that it is a right that should be available to all Canadians,” A.B. said in his statement.

Some experts have argued that coroner or medical-examiner involvement is the best way to prevent murder under the guise of assisted death.

“The point of reporting these cases to coroners or medical examiners is to make sure that somebody who has expertise in death investigation has some oversight, and could trigger an investigation if there was something that went against the law, such as a false consent or a doctor who was performing (physician-assisted death) on patients who did not qualify legally,” said Pauline Alakija, a forensic pathologist in Alberta.

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