Legislative Background: Medical Assistance in Dying (Bill C-14)

Archived information

Bill C-14, legislation on medical assistance in dying, received royal assent on June 17, 2016. For more information, visit canada.ca/health

Annex B: Relevant Excerpts from Carter v Canada (Attorney General), [2015] 1 SCR 331

In Carter, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the absolute prohibition on assisted dying unjustifiably infringes section 7 of the Charter, issuing the following declaration of invalidity:

The appropriate remedy is therefore a declaration that section 241(b) and section 14 of the Criminal Code are void insofar as they prohibit physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life; and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition. (para 127)

A Contextual Interpretation of Carter

Read in isolation, the declaration appears to describe a right that is broad. The Court does not expressly limit the right to dying individuals; the term “grievous and irremediable medical condition” is not defined, and if given a dictionary definition, it could include conditions that are not life-threatening or terminal; and the declaration is framed largely in terms of subjective criteria (i.e., suffering that is intolerable to that person).

Read in its entirety, however, the judgment points to a more limited right and more limited understanding of the meaning of “grievous and irremediable medical condition”. Aspects of the ruling that support a narrower interpretation include the following:

SCC recognized Parliament’s Policy Role including Need to Balance Diverse Interests

Jurisprudence before Carter has recognized that in complex matters of social policy, involving competing interests and conflicting social science evidence, Parliament is better placed than courts to determine how the various interests should be balanced and how the evidence should be weighed. Provided that Parliament’s response falls within a range of reasonable alternatives, a deference will be given. In Carter the Court recognized that assisted dying is such an issue and suggested that a high degree of deference would be given to the solution developed by Parliament:

The Court has also acknowledged in a number of cases that a law passed by Parliament may differ from a regime envisaged by the Court without necessarily being unconstitutional: