TORONTO – The first person in Ontario who wants doctors to help him die under a new exemption is asking the courts to rule against any coroner involvement if he is allowed an assisted suicide.
In his application to Superior Court to be heard this week, the unidentified terminally ill grandfather calls it absurd and distressing that his death might lead to a full-blown coroner’s investigation, which could include drug testing and an autopsy.
“To issue a warrant for a body, conduct an investigation, hold an inquest, or even undertake an autopsy and toxicology report, would be completely uncalled for given that the applicant’s death will be the culmination of one of the most carefully scrutinized and supervised deaths one could ever imagine,” his lawyers argue in court filings.
Current Ontario legislation requires the coroner to be notified of non-natural deaths, such as when someone dies from drug toxicity. When that happens, the coroner is obliged to take possession of the body and investigate.
In an email to the man’s lawyers, Ontario’s chief coroner, Dirk Huyer, says an investigation typically involves police, as well as the dissection of the body and toxicology testing. At the same time, he says he cannot predict what might occur in this case.
“If the coroner becomes involved with a physician-assisted death, the coroner cannot determine in advance whether an autopsy will be necessary,” Huyer writes.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down laws that bar doctors from helping someone die, but put the ruling on hold for one year. The court later granted the government a four-month extension, but said the terminally ill could ask the courts for an exemption to the ban during that period.
In this case, the man, 80, who can only be identified as A.B., has asked for such an exemption on the grounds that he is suffering unbearably. He also argues coroner involvement would be, under the circumstances, totally unwarranted. For one thing, he says, the exact nature of the drugs used to kill him would be known in advance.
Allowing coroner involvement would defeat the aim of dying with dignity, his lawyers say.
“Rather than pass peacefully, potential applicants would be forced to face the knowledge that their bodies would be seized by the coroner and possibly dissected,” they write.
“This prospect is equally troubling and devastating to the family members.”
Ontario’s Attorney General Ministry said it would not oppose the man’s request.
“The attorney general of Ontario takes no position on the relief sought in the A.B. application, including the declaration sought with respect to the Coroners Act,” spokesman Brendan Crawley said Monday.
In an interview Monday, Huyer said he could not discuss the case, but confirmed the coroner has discretion over what investigation might ensue following a doctor-assisted death. Huyer also said governments across Canada are in the process of formulating a response to the Supreme Court decision and how coroners might fit in.
Last week, an Ontario judge ruled that the identities of the man, his family and any doctors involved should be kept secret to avoid intrusive publicity or backlash from those opposed to doctor-assisted death.
According to his affidavit, A.B. was diagnosed with advanced aggressive lymphoma in 2012, a terminal condition that has left him in “intolerable pain and distress that cannot be alleviated.”
His affidavit also offers a poignant glimpse into his long life, including his marriage decades ago and immigration to Canada.
“We were overjoyed as we knew we could again build a future for our family, having lost everything,” the married father says.
Family members have expressed support for his wish to die in light of a deteriorating physical condition that has left him unable to do anything by himself and in unbearable pain.
The self-described history buff, sports fan, and “bit of a romantic” says he has lived a “wonderful and exciting” life.
“For all of my love of life, I do not fear death,” he says. “I have a strong wish to die with dignity at the time of my choosing.”