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Nine things to know about the Supreme Court's assisted suicide case

Follow @SeanFineGlobe as he covers the Supreme Court's assisted suicide case.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of Canada will be asked to resolve one of the great moral questions of our times: Should Canadians who are terminally ill and suffering unbearably have the right to a doctor's assistance to commit suicide? Here are nine things to know about the case:

1. The core of the case may be how the vulnerable would fare if assisted suicide is permitted

“The real question is whether a prohibition with exceptions would. . . place patients at risk because of the difficulty in designing and applying the exceptions,” Justice Lynn Smith of the B.C. Supreme Court wrote in 2012.

2. The federal government argues it’s a slippery slope

In Belgium, though the law requires"constant unbearable suffering," euthanasia is approved where there is only a fear of future suffering, the government says. It may be used at the first symptoms of Alzheimer's, or shortly after a cancer diagnosis. Twin brothers born deaf were euthanized at 45 after a glaucoma diagnosis that had not yet made them blind, the Canadian government says.

3. The government is up against the trial judge’s finding of fact

Justice Smith, a former law dean at the University of British Columbia, found that jurisdictions that allow doctor-assisted suicide such as Oregon, Washington, Belgium and the Netherlands have been able to minimize risks to vulnerable people. The Supreme Court ruled last December in the prostitution-law case that a trial judge’s finding of social facts should usually hold sway.

4. The government says the ban is a reasonable policy choice

Even if the court rejects the slippery slope argument, the government says its ban on assisted suicide is a reasonable policy choice in protecting the vulnerable from dying against their wishes. “Indeed it is difficult to imagine how it could be outside the range [of reasonable alternatives] when most Westem democracies have adopted the same approach.”

5. The court may look at whether the ban is the least restrictive option

In regulatory or social matters, such as when Quebec limited advertising to children, the court defers to government’s right to choose from a range of reasonable alternatives. But where the coercive hand of the criminal law is used, the court tends to insist on the least restrictive option, especially where the rights of vulnerable individuals are at stake, Joel Bakan, a specialist in constitutional law at the University of British Columbia, says.

6. Current law supports lifting the ban

Doctors may help a patient die under current law, which supports the argument for lifting the ban on assisted suicide. “Physicians may legally administer medications even though they know that the doses of medication in question may hasten death, so long as the intention is to provide palliative care by easing the patient’s pain,” Justice Smith wrote.

7. Attitudes toward suicide have changed enormously

Until 1972, attempting suicide was a crime punishable by up to six months in prison. In English law until 1823, those who committed suicide would forfeit their property and their body would be placed at a crossroads with a stake driven through it. Before the French Revolution, the body of a suicide in France could be put on trial, then crucified.

8. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin is already on record

The 70-year-old jurist, the only member of the court still around from the 1993 assisted-suicide case of Sue Rodriguez, supported the right to physician-assisted death.

9. Disability-advocacy groups will argue both sides of the issue

Some religious groups will argue against and a Unitarian group will argue for assisted suicide. Civil libertarians, the Canadian Medical Association and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec will make their views known. Of the roughly 20 intervenors, about 10 have been granted the right to make an oral argument of 10 minutes each.

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