By Julie Gordon
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The top court in British Columbia upheld Canada's law against assisted suicide on Thursday, in a split decision that will likely set up a Supreme Court battle over the right to die.
The decision in the provincial Court of Appeal follows a controversial lower court ruling that struck down a Canadian law making euthanasia illegal and allowed physician-assisted suicide in certain cases under strict conditions.
Canada's federal government appealed that ruling, arguing that legalizing assisted suicide would diminish the value of life and potentially put vulnerable people at risk.
The federal ban on assisted suicide was upheld by two justices, with one dissenting.
"The societal consequences of permitting physician-assisted suicide in Canada - and indeed enshrining it as a constitutional right - are a matter of serious concern to many Canadians, and, as is shown by the evidence reviewed by the trial judge in this case, no consensus on the subject is apparent, even among ethicists or medical practitioners," said Madam Justices Mary Newbury and Mary Saunders in their judgment.
At the heart of the case was Gloria Taylor, an Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) patient and activist, who joined the right to die lawsuit in 2011. Taylor died of her illness in 2012.
The family of second woman, Kay Carter, who traveled to Switzerland more than three years ago to end her life, were also plaintiffs. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, along with a handful of other European jurisdictions and a few U.S. states.
Canada's Supreme Court last considered assisted suicide two decades ago with the case of Sue Rodriguez, who also suffered ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
In that case, the country's top court ruled that no person could legally assist in another's death, regardless of terminal illness, pain, prolonged suffering or an expressed wish to die.
"The Court of Appeal decided that their hands were tied by the 20-year-old Rodriguez decision," said Joseph Arvay, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "We are prepared to go to the highest court in land to resolve this issue because it is so critically important."
Arvay added that a person's choice to live or die, and an individual's ability to control when and how they die, are an personal right that should not be interfered with by the state.
While assisted suicide remains illegal in Canada, the issue of decriminalizing it for those whose lives are unbearable due to illness or injury is a matter of debate in many countries.
Right-to-die advocates say people capable of making that decision should be allowed to die with dignity. Opponents say liberalizing the law could leave vulnerable people at risk and many are opposed on religious grounds.
Last month, British cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who also has ALS, said the terminally ill should be able choose to end their lives and receive help do so, so long as safeguards are in place.
The case was Carter v. Canada, docket CA040079, in the B.C. Court of Appeal.
(Additional reporting by Nicole Mordant; Editing by Alden Bentley)