It’s an issue that won’t go away

April 23, 2014   ·   0 Comments

IT’S NOT OFTEN that private members’ bills get adopted by Parliament or a provincial legislature, particularly if they espouse something governments would rather not see happen.

However, there are some occasions that really demand the sort of close look an issue will get only if it’s subject to committee sessions and a thorough House debate.

Such is the case with two bills submitted by Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, a quadriplegic since 1996.

One is designed to decriminalize physician-assisted death for “competent adults” and the other to make the process transparent.

The bills are designed to ensure that both Canadians and legislators face hard truths about end-of-life issues.

“Assisted dying happens far more often than I think we would like to think,” the Manitoba MP told The National Post, “in unregulated circumstances, in the shadows. … We know it’s happening – the morphine is turned up a bit here, there’s people starving to death over there – it’s all under the table. There must be a better way.”

The bills target Section 241(b) of the Criminal Code, which makes it a crime to assist anyone in committing suicide.

“There are some circumstances, usually at the end of life, when an individual can go through a tremendous amount of pain and suffering, and who may wish to have assistance in dying,” Mr. Fletcher said.

“My bill allows that to happen – under very strict conditions.”

In 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada narrowly upheld the law banning assisted suicide, and now is being asked to reconsider that decision on slightly different Charter grounds, but a ruling that s. 241(b) is unconstitutional would leave Canada in the same position as it has been for decades on the subject of abortion, with no safeguards of the sort Mr. Fletcher proposes.

Unfortunately, the current position of the federal government is that the absolute ban is needed as a means of protecting vulnerable Canadians.

Legislation proposed by Quebec’s Parti Quebecois government before its unsuccessful bid for re-election would have permitted doctor-assisted suicide, but it’s far from clear how such a provincial law would invalidate the Criminal Code provision.

Clearly, Mr. Fletcher is right in suggesting that the situation today is much like the days before abortion was effectively legalized; it’s happening every day, but only in the shadows.

And at least one Canadian doctor sees a decision coming soon.

“Physician-assisted death is going to become legal in Canada in the very near future by one means or another and crucial questions need to be answered,” said Dr. James Downar, a critical care and palliative care physician at Toronto General Hospital. Among them are when does a terminally ill patient’s suffering become “intolerable” and how long must it last before doctor-assisted death could be granted?

In the circumstances, what is urgently needed is an agreement among the leaders of the federal Conservative, Liberal and New Democratic parties that the Fletcher bills should be subject to a free vote on second reading (approval in principle) and submitted to a committee for public hearings that would help clarify the proposed regulatory scheme.

One option that might be considered would be to leave regulation either to the provinces or to a federal-provincial commission.

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