Peter Baklinski


Canadian Supreme Court rules doctors cannot decide if patients live or die

Peter Baklinski

OTTAWA, October 18, 2013 ( – The Supreme Court of Canada ruled this morning in a 5-2 decision that doctors cannot decide whether a patient lives or dies. 

“Allowing physicians to unilaterally determine whether consent is required in any given case cuts against patient autonomy and the statutory objective of providing consent rules that apply consistently in all settings,” the Supreme Court decision stated.

“This is good news because it upholds patient rights near the end of life,” said Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, which intervened in the case.

“What this means is that a doctor cannot unilaterally decide that the values of one person be imposed on other people without oversight,” he told

The case concerns Hassan Rasouli, who had minor surgery at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto three years ago to remove a benign tumor in his head. Following the procedure, Rasouli developed bacterial meningitis and ventriculitis. The infection caused a severe and widespread brain injury, as well as damage to the brainstem and the spinal cord, which put him into a coma.

Doctors determined that Rasouli was in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS), despite compelling evidence to the contrary witnessed by family.

Concluding that Rasouli had no hope of recovery, doctors decided to withdraw all treatments, including ventilation. But the family disagreed with the diagnosis and sought  an injunction to prevent the doctors and the hospital from withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. 

The case finally found its way to the Supreme Court, where doctors argued for their unilateral right to decide when medical treatment can be withdrawn.

Today, the court ruled that doctors cannot unilaterally withdraw life support against family wishes.

“Doctors cannot decide between life and death for a patient [on their own authority],” said Schadenberg. “The ruling means that they cannot play God in Canada.”

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision, saying that it affirms the importance of patient beliefs. 
“The decision affirms the place of patient consent and personal beliefs in life-support decisions,” it stated in a press release. “It also confirms that physicians are required to obtain consent from a patient, or their substitute decision-maker if they are incapacitated, before withdrawing life support.”

In the meantime, Rasouli has made progress towards recovery. He is no longer diagnosed as “vegetative”, but doctors now say he is in a “minimally conscious” state. “He’s doing very well,” daughter Mozghan Rasouli told reporters this morning before the decision was released. “Today is just another day.”

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for the majority, will allow the ruling to be appealed if the doctors so choose. Each party was ordered to pay their own costs. The Rasouli’s family lawyer estimated costs to be around 500,000 dollars, reporters were told in a press conference held this morning.

Today’s ruling is the second significant court victory in a little over a week for defenders of life and family values. Last week the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld the country’s laws prohibiting euthanasia and assisted suicide, overturning a 2012 ruling issued by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith.

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