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B.C. assisted suicide case gets early court date

Gloria Taylor is pictured in this undated handout photo

When Gloria Taylor learned that the Supreme Court of British Columbia has agreed to expedite her case for assisted suicide she sounded like someone who had just won a prize.

"All right! Oh, I'm so happy about that," said Ms. Taylor on Wednesday, when informed the court has agreed to hear her right-to-die case beginning Nov. 15.

"Actually I just said to my granddaughter, Oh God, today we'll find out. I sure hope it's not March because I don't want to wait that long, till I'm really, really bad and it's way, way, way hard for me to travel," said Ms. Taylor, who was reached at her home in Westbank, near Kelowna, where she is facing a slow, painful death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

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Ms. Taylor, a 63-year-old divorced mother of two adult sons, and grandmother of an 11-year-old girl, said she hopes to attend the trial in Vancouver, which is slated to run for four weeks and could give her the right to commit suicide by early next year.

She declined to answer questions about her health, saying she has been advised not to speak with the media.

But the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which for her and several others is challenging the laws that make it a criminal offence for anyone to assist in a suicide, has detailed her medical conditions in an affidavit.

It describes how her muscles are deteriorating and her body is wracked at times with spasms and excruciating pain. Some 3,000 Canadians suffer from ALS, and 80 per cent of those who are diagnosed with the disease die within five years.

The affidavit states that Ms. Taylor was told in January of 2010 she would likely die within one year.

"One of her greatest fears is to be reduced to a condition where she must rely on others for all of her needs. She does not want to live in a bedridden state, stripped of her dignity and independence," the affidavit states. "She wants the legal right to die peacefully, at the time of her own choosing, in the embrace of her family and friends."

When the BCCLA applied to have the case expedited, lawyer Joseph Arvay asked for a trial date this fall, saying Ms. Taylor's condition is urgent. Lawyers for the federal and provincial governments objected, asking for more time to prepare for a legally complicated case with huge social implications. They suggested a date early next year.

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But Madam Justice Lynn Smith accepted Mr. Arvay's argument. "I've considered the case plans put forward. … Mr. Arvay has circumstances … that make it urgent to hear this matter expeditiously. … I'm satisfied there is urgency," she said.

Outside court, Mr. Arvay said: "It's very good news because for Gloria Taylor … it means that she may now have the right to exercise her constitutional right to die with dignity, before she dies [from ALS]"

With the trial slated to run into December, and a decision likely to take several weeks, Mr. Arvay was asked if he is concerned his client might not live long enough to profit from the judgment, should it be in her favour.

"Gloria is an amazing woman," he said. "She has lived much longer than the doctors predicted she would. She told me that she was going to hang on as long as it took in order for her to exercise her constitutional right."

Although it is expected the decision, whichever way it goes, will be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, Mr. Arvay said if he wins in B.C., Ms. Taylor could have a physician-assisted suicide while awaiting the outcome of the appeal.

In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 against giving Sue Rodriguez the legal right to die. The Victoria woman, whose case drew national attention, was dying at the time from ALS. She committed suicide in 1994 with the help of an anonymous physician.

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Mr. Arvay said times have changed since then – and he is hopeful of a different outcome in the courts this time.

"There have been a lot of changes. Certainly public opinion has changed. There have been changes in the law. We'll be providing the court with a much richer evidentiary record than they had the benefit of in the Rodriguez case," said Mr. Arvay.

In a parallel case also before the Supreme Court of B.C., the Farewell Foundation For The Right To Die, which is trying to register as a society, plans to argue that while public opinion was divided in 1993, polls now show 70 per cent of Canadians favour physician-assisted suicide.

The Farewell Foundation, which may seek intervenor status in the BCCLA case rather than proceeding separately, also argues that assisted suicide practices have become legal in several countries in recent years, and those models provide evidentiary proof that suicides can be carried out in a legally regulated way, with oversight from police and the coroner's office.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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