Margaret Somerville - What the top court left out in assisted suicide decision

By Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director - Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

Margaret Somerville

Margaret Somerville

Margaret Somerville, the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, wrote an insightful article titled - What the top court left out in judgement on assisted suicide - that was published in the Globe and Mail on October 27.

In her article, Somerville comments on the Supreme Court of Canada assisted suicide decision:

A central question in legalizing physician-assisted suicide is where the balance between respecting individual rights to autonomy and protection of the “common good” (protection of others and society, including its important values) should be struck. In this case, there was almost no such balancing. 
Rather, both the trial court and the Supreme Court focused almost exclusively on the rights of individual persons, so that the factual findings and legal reasoning were intensely individualistically based. 
Both courts adopted a narrow definition of Parliament’s purpose in prohibiting assisted suicide (namely, that it was to protect a vulnerable person in moments of weakness from acting on suicidal ideation) and concluded that an absolute prohibition was not needed to achieve this. Indeed, the courts accepted the evidence of plaintiff Gloria Taylor, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, that she did not need this protection as showing that she and people like her did not – that is, they were “not vulnerable.”

Then Somerville asks - But was the court correct in its assessment of vulnerability? She explains:
 

Prof. Henk ten Have, a physician-ethicist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, recently published a paper proposing that vulnerability is an innate human characteristic that we all experience throughout our lives, because it “comes from the social dimension of human existence.” In short, we are not free-floating autonomous atoms.

Somerville explains:

Vulnerability is linked to dependence on others. We are all interdependent, which means we are all vulnerable. This is not necessarily bad, as we might at first assume when we hear the word “vulnerable.” 

Somerville then concludes that Supreme Court missed the common good or the importance of people caring for one another.

Link to the full article