Conscience matters

  • February 25, 2016

Governments are usually criticized for political flipflops, but the federal Liberals deserve at least faint praise for hitting the pause button on a daft plan to deny party members a free vote on upcoming assisted suicide legislation.

Party unity is often fair game, but strong-arming MPs to betray their conscience and religious beliefs on matters of life and death goes way too far. Whipping the vote in these situations is historically unparliamentary, ethically unsound and just plain wrong.

So it was no surprise that the Liberals were lampooned after declaring Feb. 11 that their MPs would be whipped to support legislation on assisted suicide that is not yet even written. A U-turn and mea-culpa came a week later. The new party line is that party whips are standing down until the legislation is tabled, at which time a decision will be made.

That’s a start. But if the Liberals are sincere about doing what is right they will permit an open debate and free vote on assisted suicide. Sometime this spring legislation will be tabled to align the Criminal Code with last year’s tragic Supreme Court ruling that struck down an absolute ban on assisted suicide. The proposed law will challenge the values and religious convictions of many MPs. On such a serious issue of conscience they should be allowed to vote free of coercion.

The Liberals have tried to paint this as a Charter of Rights issue. But that is a red-herring. The Charter question was answered last year by the Supreme Court. What Parliament is facing is a policy issue, developing legislation that accommodates that Court decision.

Lawmakers must decide where to draw the line regarding who will qualify for death, how the law will protect the elderly, handicapped, depressed, poor, lonely and others, including children, from coercion, where these homicides will occur, who will do the injecting and whether doctors and other health care workers can refuse to either kill patients or refer them to be killed.

The debate will be passionate and the eventual law will almost certainly be contentious. It is a lifeand- death issue that will no doubt cause some MPs to undergo a stressful examination of conscience. For many, the black dawn of a Canada that condones one person ending the life of another will be chilling and raise sincere moral and religious dilemmas. That anxiety will be heightened if the new law proposes anything but the narrowest interpretation possible of the Supreme Court decision.

Where the Charter does come clearly into play is in Section 2(a), which guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. That right is not checked at the door when an MP enters the House of Commons. It warrants protection always, particularly on a matter so distasteful.

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