Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the federal government will take its time in crafting a response to the Supreme Court striking down Canada’s laws against physician-assisted suicide. CCN photo/Deborah Gyapong

Speculation mounts on response to euthanasia decision

  • February 18, 2015

OTTAWA - With one year to come up with a solution after the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s laws against physician-assisted suicide, there are any number of options being bandied about on all spectrums of the political divide.

Some, including Tory MP Maurice Vellacott, are calling for the government to invoke Section 33 of the Charter, the notwithstanding clause, in order to suspend the court’s decision for five years.

“I am calling upon all party leaders to set aside their partisan differences and unite in support of using the Charter’s section 33 ‘notwithstanding’ clause in order to give Parliament the time it needs to conduct broad enough consultations to discern: how we can implement a plan to provide the resources and substantial palliative care to significantly alleviate suffering so that requests to die will be reduced to a minimum; and how to provide appropriate parameters and safeguards in response to the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Vellacott.

“Now is the time for Parliament to act with courage, for the sake of all Canadians, and for the future of Canada. Let us not look back years and decades from now with regret that we didn’t take the time to get it right when we had the chance.”

Former Liberal MP Pat O’Brien, who advises a number of pro-life and pro-family groups, is in agreement with Vellacott.

“I’ve been calling for the notwithstanding clause with full knowledge that it’s very unlikely to happen,” said O’Brien.

“I still think the call makes sense. Some government at some point will have the guts to use it.”

Canada’s highest court gave the government a year to respond to the new legislation, and until then, physician-assisted suicide, or doctor-assisted death, as it is called in the judgment, remains illegal.

Responding to journalists after the Feb. 6 decision, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the government intends to take its time.

“There is a wide and obviously very emotional range of perspectives on this issue, but it has very far reaching implications, so we intend to take the time to look at this decision carefully, thoughtfully,” he said.

He indicated the one-year time period was long enough, despite the fall election, and refused to answer a question on the notwithstanding clause.

“There seems to be a bit of paralysis set in,” said Convivium publisher and Catholic Register columnist Peter Stockland. “Nobody’s sure quite what to do at this point… We could be looking at a year of just fiddling around.”

Nic Steenhout, executive director of the grassroots Quebec group Living with Dignity that fought euthanasia Bill-52 in that province, said he hopes the federal government will act quickly to ensure the response includes proper access to palliative care for everyone who needs it and access to a full range of suicide prevention programs.

“Most people who end up asking for assisted suicide or euthanasia suffer from some form of depression,” Steenhout said. Many people with disabilities or chronic illness do not receive support in dealing with depression.

“There are no safeguards that can be written that would protect everyone in every situation,” he said. “We are wary about recommending safeguards.”

Steenhout also called for a proper consultation, not like the public hearings conducted in Quebec where despite the fact that 60 per cent of submissions opposed euthanasia and assisted suicide, the commission conducting the hearings determined the hearings showed support for Bill-52.

Albertos Polizogopoulos, a lawyer who represented the Christian Medical Dental Society of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies in their Carter intervention, warned too much delay in crafting a law could lead to a legal vacuum similar to what Canada has regarding abortion.

“We may end up in Morgentaler territory where we have no regulation at all,” he said.

“It’s typical Pollyanish smugness that says we’ll come up with something,” said Stockland. “We were going to come up with something on abortion, but 25 years later we don’t have it.

“You could very well end up with political pressure coming from so many perspectives we end up with nothing,” he said.

“It’s opening up a Pandora’s box on several other fields,” Polizogopoulos said. “I as a lawyer may object to crafting powers of attorney (POA) that include a clause for (physician-assisted suicide) in certain circumstances.”

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