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Doctors divided over assisted suicide ruling

The B.C. Supreme Court's recent move to strike down a ban on doctor-assisted suicide has reopened debate around the responsibilities of doctors providing end-of-life care. While some doctors say the decision will guarantee rights for terminally ill patients seeking to alleviate suffering, others contend the decision could lead to patient abuse.

Dr. Will Johnston, president of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of B.C., an intervener in the case, is concerned by evidence that suggests increased instances of suicide and abuse in jurisdictions where assisted suicide has been declared legal.

For example, in Oregon suicide rates were decreasing but began to climb once assisted suicide was allowed in the state, he said, though he admits "there is no way we can prove causation."

"We have a national strategy to address suicide prevention," he said. "We need to think about the message we are sending [with a new law]."

Johnston works in palliative care and said the decision may grant too much power to individual doctors.

Dr. Sharon Cohen is the director of the Toronto Memory Program and works with patients suffering from neurodegenerative disorders like Huntington's disease.

"This is about choice," Cohen said. "I don't think this is about granting the physician undue power."

Justice Lynn Smith's ruling finds denying physician-assisted suicide is discriminatory and denies the terminally-ill their Charter rights.

"It leads to alleviating suffering and individual rights for patient care," she said. "It's an important treatment if the only other option was to die more slowly. "

But Johnston disagrees. "Killing is not care. It is abandoning care. People already have the right to refuse care," he said.

"This is just not the right step."

The B.C. Supreme Court decision allows Parliament a year to write a new law. Gloria Taylor, the woman who brought forward the case and suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has been granted an exemption, so that she will not have to wait for the legislation.*

The office of Justice Minister Rob Nicholson released a statement today saying officials are currently reviewing the case to determine whether or not the federal government will appeal the B.C. ruling.

Ariel Fournier is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.

*Story clarified June 19, 9:45 a.m.

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