An unprecedented challenge

May 5, 2016   ·   0 Comments

CANADA’S PARLIAMENTARIANS are facing an unprecedented challenge these days as they consider a government bill that would not only decriminalize assisted suicide but permit doctors to give lethal injections to some terminally ill patients.

The procedures chosen by the Trudeau Liberals are certainly unusual and probably necessary because of the time limit imposed by the Supreme Court of Canada. Having found the existing Criminal Code provisions against doctor-assisted suicide unconstitutional, the court has given the government only until a month from tomorrow (Monday, June 6) to pass appropriate legislation.

As a result, the House of Commons is sitting until midnight to discuss the government bill, which is generally regarded as more restrictive than measures proposed by a Commons committee, but is similar to a law passed by the Quebec National Assembly.

At present, the only certainty is that the government bill will please few, with some Canadians opposing any change in the existing law and others arguing that it is far too restrictive.

The difficulty Parliament faces was beautifully illustrated in a story out of Ottawa this week concerning the first person to obtain a legally sanctioned, medically assisted death in Canada, outside Quebec, who still didn’t get her wish to die peacefully at home.

Even though she had a judge’s approval, Hanne Schafer could not find a doctor in her hometown of Calgary willing to help her die. Her husband says they had to fly to Vancouver, where two doctors agreed to help Schafer end her suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which had robbed her of mobility, speech and the ability to do anything for herself, including eat. And the lethal drug combination injected into her in March had to be ordered from Switzerland because a local pharmacist could not be found who would provide the drugs.

That single experience illustrates the difficulty in ensuring that Canadians who are legally eligible for medical assistance in dying will actually be able to get it.

As is the case with the Quebec law, the government bill does not compel medical practitioners to participate; the government says it instead intends to work with the provinces to set up a network of those practitioners who are willing to help people die.

As currently drafted, the bill would require a person seeking to invoke its provisions to be a consenting adult, at least 18 years of age, in “an advanced stage of irreversible decline” from a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability and for whom a natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.”

Will the bill pass? If, as is expected, the MPs and Senators will be allowed a “free” vote (rather than have to follow the party line) we expect that at least some of them will be guided by input from their constituents. If that is indeed the case, passage of the bill is far from a certainty.

And what if the bill is defeated?

As we see it, that would be far from the end of the world, but rather a consequence of the same process that left Canada without any law restricting abortions – a Supreme Court ruling that removed a ban from the Criminal Code, and failure of Parliament to enact a law regulating the procedure.

In this case, however, we would have different ramifications in Quebec and the rest of the country.

In Quebec, there would be few, if any, consequences, since there would still be a provincial law regulating doctor-assisted suicides. Although it would be open to the other provinces and territories to pass similar legislation, in the absence of a federal law there would be no guarantee of equal access, and in any province unwilling or unable to pass such a law there would be a real risk of the “slippery slope” with elimination by euthanasia of some  for whom life is still precious.

Certainly, the preferred result would be enactment of a federal law that decriminalizes doctor-assisted death while going as far as humanly possible both to minimize the risk of over-use and to ensure that there is uniform access to the assistance across the country.

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