OTTAWA (REUTERS) - The Supreme Court of Canada overturned a ban on physician-assisted suicide on Friday, unanimously reversing a decision it made in 1993 and putting Canada in the company of a handful of Western countries where the practice will be legal.
The top court said it would be allowed in the case of consenting adults who are suffering intolerably from a severe and incurable medical condition, though the illness does not have to be terminal.
The decision takes effect in 12 months.
"We do not agree that the existential formulation of the right to life requires an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying, or that individuals cannot 'waive' their right to life,"the court said.
Friday's decision related to the case of two women with debilitating illnesses who have since died.
Gloria Taylor, an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient and activist, who joined the right to die lawsuit in 2011, died of her illness in 2012.
ALS is informally called Lou Gehrig's disease.
The family of a second woman, Kay Carter, who travelled to Switzerland to end her life, were also plaintiffs.
Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, along with a handful of other European countries and a few US states.
Canada's Supreme Court last considered assisted suicide in 1993 with the case of Sue Rodriguez, who also suffered from ALS.
"This is one incredible day," said Grace Pastine, litigation director of B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which initiated the challenge.
"Physician-assisted dying is now recognised for what it is: a medical service that brings an end, for some individuals, to unbearable suffering."
Parliament can overturn the decision but that is an unlikely outcome.
Since 1993, pressure for assisted suicide has persisted.
Last year, the Quebec government introduced a bill to legalise it, arguing this was a matter of health care under provincial jurisdiction, not a criminal matter in the federal bailiwick.
Religious groups have opposed it as well as organisations representing people with disabilities.
They argue that making it easier to end people's lives is a slippery slope that makes them feel vulnerable.