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The stories behind Canada’s assisted suicide battle

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced legislation Thursday that would legalize physician-assisted suicide across the nation. Trudeau’s decision comes a year after the Canadian Supreme Court overturned a criminal ban against the practice. For more on the issue, we look back at special correspondent John Larson’s report last year on the patient at the center of the Supreme Court case.

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  • Judy Woodruff

    : Today, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide in that country.

    Last year, the Canadian Supreme Court overturned a criminal ban against the practice.

    Tonight, we take a moment to revisit a story we brought you last year from special correspondent John Larson, who introduced us to the patient at the center of the court case.

  • Elayne Shapray, Right to Die Advocate:

    My pain or discomfort is virtually constant.

  • John Larson

    : When medically assisted death was argued before the Canadian Supreme Court, Elayne Shapray’s statement was exhibit A.

  • Elayne Shapray

    : I cannot move or turn over in bed. In effect, I am a prisoner of my own body. I no longer consider my life worth living unless I possess the means to leave it at the time of my choosing.

  • John Larson

    : Shapray was a nurse, an active mother of two, until multiple sclerosis struck. Now 68 years old, she can no longer do much of anything without help, including — and this is why she’s exhibit A — take her own life.

    How far away are you from that point where you would no longer be able to end your own life?

  • Elayne Shapray

    : I can see it from here.

  • John Larson

    : The question of whether doctors should be allowed to help people like Elayne die was at the center of the Canadian Supreme Court decision.

    The court ruled that laws making physician-assisted death illegal violated Canadians’ constitutional rights in cases where an adult clearly consents to the termination of life and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition. The most recent polls show 86 percent of the Canadian general public approve.

  • David Lemon

    : There’s no question there’s going to have to be some serious thought about finding the right balance, but it is something whose time has come. It has to be.

  • Susan Wagner

    : I think people do have the right to decide for themselves about the end of their life, and how — the quality of that.

  • John Larson

    : The court’s decision left room for interpretation, however. For example, a patient’s condition must be, among other things, severe and incurable. But that’s not the same as terminal. For example, what if a patient has severe arthritis? Would they be eligible? Or what if they’re disabled or mentally ill?

    Remember, Shapray suffers from M.S., a debilitating, but not life-ending disease.

    You’re not in the end stage of a terminal illness.

  • Elayne Shapray

    : It’s an interminable illness.

  • John Larson

    : Interminable.

  • Elayne Shapray

    : Interminable. How do you weigh that? How do you measure that, unless you’re sitting in my wheelchair?

  • Dr. Will Johnston, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition – British Columbia:

    Well, it seems clear from what the Supreme Court has said that you need not be terminally ill to qualify.

  • John Larson

    : Dr. Will Johnston, an outspoken opponent of physician-assisted death, says the court’s liberal language, that the patient may suffer from an disease or disability, and that suffering is only defined as intolerable to the individual, leaves the door open for abuse.

  • Dr. Will Johnston

    : You do not even need to be physically ill, because they specifically stated that psychological suffering would qualify as well.

  • Grace Pastine, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association:

    So what the court said was that the right to assisted dying should be available only in narrow circumstances.

  • John Larson

    : Grace Pastine of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which successfully brought the case to the Supreme Court, says the specifics of exactly who will be eligible for assisted dying have yet to be determined, but should be narrowly defined.

  • Grace Pastine

    : The court made it very clear that physician-assisted dying would only be an option for individuals who are mentally competent and able to make a fully informed voluntary choice. I think, for example, someone who suffered from a type of severe mental illness wouldn’t be able to qualify because they wouldn’t be able to meet the consent requirements.

  • John Larson

    : Opponents like Dr. Johnston hope pain management, palliative care, will be sufficient for most patients and doctors.

  • Dr. Will Johnston

    : We can do that without turning our 2,400 years of medical ethical history on its head, without crossing that bright line between attempting to treat the symptoms of the patient and intending to kill the patient.

  • Leslie Laforest, Right to Die Advocate:

    But many, many people do not, in fact, have that painless death.

  • John Larson

    : Leslie Laforest was diagnosed three years ago with a recurrence of her stage four anal cancer. But although her cancer is in remission, she knows, if it returns, her death could be prolonged and painful.

  • Leslie Laforest

    : I have absolutely the strongest will that I will not go through that final chapter, whenever that comes.

  • John Larson

    : Laforest testified in the case that went to the Supreme Court that current law would force her to take her life early, while she could still do it herself, a point that the high court referenced in its decision.

  • Woman

    : Here’s your medicine, Elayne.

  • John Larson

    : When the case went to the Supreme Court, lawyers requested Elayne Shapray be given special consideration, a waiver that would allow a doctor to end her life while the government writes a new law. The court turned her down, meaning Elayne will have to wait a full year before a doctor could legally end her life.

  • John Larson

    : You feel like you have a year?

  • Elayne Shapray

    : I think I would rather not answer that question.

  • John Larson

    : For “NewsHour,” John Larson in Vancouver, British Columbia.

  • Judy Woodruff

    : Elayne Shapray continues her fight against multiple sclerosis and opposes the proposed assisted-suicide law. She says it is not far-reaching enough.

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