Canada hits the one year anniversary of the legalization of assisted death June 17. Photo courtesy of Jonathankslim

Editorial: Canada's sad euthanasia anniversary

  • June 15, 2017

One year, perhaps 2,000 deaths and several unresolved issues.

As Canada passes the June 17 one-year anniversary of the day Parliament briskly made assisted suicide and euthanasia legal, the debate around medical killing is anything but settled. That’s not to suggest the law may be reversed. Tragically, there is little public support or political will to make that happen. When Canada joined a small list of nations to permit death by doctor, it crossed a moral Rubicon that is without a foreseeable retreat.

But still unanswered is how far Canadian society will push the envelope in terms of who qualifies for assisted dying, and to what extent society will insist that every person who rejects assisted dying have the option of palliative and hospice care to assure them a dignified, natural death.

These vital matters went unaddressed as Parliament scrambled after the 2015 election to draft a law and meet a Supreme Court deadline. It was always unrealistic to expect lawmakers to unravel this complex issue in mere months. Instead, they shrugged and set aside some key questions.

Prominent among these was whether assisted suicide should be offered to teenagers and children, and to the mentally disabled, and should people in the early stages of disease be able to give an “advance directive” to be killed at a future date when they would be unable to give informed consent. A panel is studying these questions and will submit a report next year.   

It is similar for palliative and hospice care. The government has committed to expanding these services but how much and when remain open questions. Meantime, society’s benign acceptance of assisted suicide is quickly growing. It’s as if now that it is legal, people believe it must be moral.

 As Canadian society distances itself from believing that life, all life, is sacred, what’s left to determine is which lives are worth preserving. That unsettling debate is now underway, and only a giddy optimist would predict that courts and lawmakers will accept the existing boundaries.

Then there is the matter of reporting, specifically, creating a national framework to provide critical province-by-province data on exactly how often assisted suicide and euthanasia are being requested and performed. Comprehensive and transparent record-keeping is essential to flagging abuse. Also, scrupulous monitoring reflects the seriousness of passing laws that make it acceptable in specific circumstances for one human to end the life of another.

Like so much around this issue, national reporting is a work in progress that won’t be settled before next year. Meantime, although estimates put the number somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000, it’s unknown exactly how many assisted suicides were carried out in the past year.

As anniversaries go, there is nothing happy about this one.

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