A significant change may be afoot in bioethics discourse: major issues are now being portrayed as matters of human rights rather than simply autonomy. First, access to health care, then contraceptives, then abortion. The latest, predictably, is euthanasia.
In the most controversial Canadian bioethics case in years, a British Columbia court has heard that outlawing euthanasia is akin to torture. Lawyer Joseph Arvay represents two surviving plaintiffs in the case of Carter et al vs. the Attorney General of Canada. He says the ban on assisted suicide is tantamount to torture. "The choice for those people is, if they comply with the law, they will suffer, and for some of the people the suffering could be tantamount to torture," Arvay told a three-judge appeal panel.
He continued: "they're given the choice: torture or early death. And some people will take the early death, because they were driven to that choice by the law."
Arvay’s comments come in the wake a recent UN report on torture in health care. There, Juan Mendez, an Argentinean human rights expert, listed dozens of medical issues that are “tantamount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Included were involuntary psychiatric treatment, denial of methadone in jails, as well as unethical experimentation.
The Canadian government does not support assisted suicide, arguing that the laws themselves actually “protect” the lives the sick and elderly. “These laws exist to protect all Canadians, including the most vulnerable members of our society, such as those who are sick or elderly and persons with disabilities”, said Federal Attorney-General Rob Nicholson.
The case is currently before the British Columbia Court of Appeal, after being heard by the BC Supreme Court in 2012. That court ruled that a federal law banning doctor-assisted suicide is unconstitutional.
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