Rare, last resort

  • February 13, 2016

There comes a point as flames are consuming a house that a homeowner realizes it’s time to drop the fire extinguisher and grab the family jewels in the sad realization that the battle is lost.

That’s pretty much where things stands in the matter of physician-assisted death. The Supreme Court set things ablaze a year ago when it struck down the blanket ban against assisted suicide. Since then, opponents have waged a frantic effort to contain the flames. But facing unsympathetic courts and a government refusing to invoke the Notwithstanding clause, they’re now scrambling to safeguard the valuables or, more specifically, protect the vulnerable.

A joint Parliamentary committee has recently concluded hearings and will issue a report by month’s end on how laws should be amended to accommodate people who want access to physician- assisted death. The committee will no doubt recommend some measures to limit the practice and also offer some protections for doctors who refuse on moral grounds to kill patients. But given the pro-death tone of the hearings, few expect the safeguards to sufficiently protect society’s most vulnerable members or fully respect the conscience rights of health care workers.

McGill University bioethicist Margaret Somerville offered the committee a chilling picture of up to 12,000 deaths annually from lethal injection unless lawmakers put tight restrictions on who is eligible for assisted death. The starting point for any law, she testified, should be respect for the foundational Canadian value of respect for life. But, otherwise, that sentiment was rarely evoked at the hearings. More common were calls to let individuals decide this for themselves or frightening suggestions that any safeguards will fail court challenges, leaving at risk the aged, sick, disabled, depressed or chronically ill, including children.

There may be no reversing a bad Supreme Court decision, but if Canada must legalize this abhorrent practice then assisted death should, as Somerville argued, be rare and a last resort. It is morally wrong for one person to deliberately cause the death of another and for society to deem some lives more worthy than others. That is the message the committee should take to Parliament.

The committee should also recommend creation of a pan-Canadian palliative care strategy as well as offer unassailable protection for vulnerable health care workers and medial institutions that want no part of assisted killing. That means the right to refuse to oversee lethal injections directly or abet a death indirectly by referring patients to obliging doctors. As Cardinal Thomas Collins told the committee, referrals are the moral equivalent of participating in the act itself.

Those types of recommendations seem unlikely, however, based on how the hearings played out. Like a house well ablaze, the wildfire of assisted killing is out of control.

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