The House of Commons is now under pressure to pass Bill C-14 before the summer recess starting on June 23. Photo/Courtesy of Makaristos, Wikimedia Commons

Get it done

  • June 17, 2016

The prevailing legal vacuum around assisted suicide is unacceptable and begs a speedy end to the head-butting between the elected House of Commons and the unelected Senate — even if that means politicians forgoing summer vacations.

After rejecting the option of the notwithstanding clause and then missing the Supreme Court’s June 6 deadline to embrace assisted killing in the Criminal Code, Parliament now faces a June 23 deadline when the House of Commons is slated to pack up for the summer. Should Bill C-14 fail to become law before MPs scatter, Canadians would face several more months of legal purgatory with minimal limits on who can be killed, piddling protection for the vulnerable and a potpourri of provincial rules on how assisted suicide is administered and reported, if reported at all.

Without federal legislation, there is no legal impediment to a doctor lethally injecting a patient who meets the Court’s low threshold and who gives one-time verbal consent (i.e. no signed document). There is no mandatory waiting period for a patient to back out or for others to ensure the decision is free of coercion. There is no need for a patient to be terminally ill and no obligation to spare those with a psychiatric illness or depression. And there is no legal requirement to get a second medical opinion or court approval, nor even to report the death as an assisted suicide.

The only guidelines come from interpretations of the Court ruling and from provincial oversight provided mainly by medical colleges. These guidelines differ from province to province and, in any event, lack the legal weight of the Criminal Code. Together, it creates a grim scenario wide open to possible abuse.

This dark horizon barely resembles what the Supreme Court intended by its 2015 ruling, or what the House of Commons passed in Bill C-14, or what the Senate proposed in various amendments. None of those bodies sought a landscape of no federal law. None of us should accept this twilight zone.

Unlike the Supreme Court deadline, the Commons’ summer recess deadline can be extended by unanimous vote. Politicians rarely find unanimous consensus but they should feel morally bound to unite on this issue and sit all summer if necessary to end the Senate stare-down.  

Assisted suicide is never justified, but enacting a law that sets limits and safeguards beats having no law at all. Bill C-14 is widely flawed but it is less bad than what the Supreme Court and Senate propose, and is preferred to the status quo.

Elected Members of Parliament must vehemently reject calls from unelected Senators to make assisted suicide more easily accessible. Indeed, the House should be open to imposing more restrictions and safeguards — and members should stay put in Ottawa until this odious business is settled.

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