Liberal leader Justin Trudeau Photo by Michael Swan

Tories quash motion to fast-track euthanasia law

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  • March 3, 2015

OTTAWA - The federal Conservatives intend to undertake extensive consultations and still meet the one-year deadline set by the Supreme Court of Canada when it struck down the laws against assisted suicide in the Carter decision Feb. 6.

“We intend to launch meaningful consultations soon with Canadians and key stakeholders so that we can hear all perspectives on this difficult issue,” said Conservative MP Bob Dechert, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice.

The Tories used their majority in Parliament to quash a Liberal motion to fast-track legislation on “physician-assisted suicide” Feb. 24. The Liberal motion, introduced by leader Justin Trudeau, called for “immediate action” through the appointing of a special, all-party committee to examine the Supreme Court decision, “consult with experts and Canadians” and “make recommendations for a legislative framework that will respect the Constitution, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the priorities of Canada.” Trudeau warned doing nothing could leave Canada “without any laws governing physician-assisted death.”

Though Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who had introduced private members’ bills to legalize physician-assisted suicide, voted with the Opposition parties, the Tories otherwise displayed a united front against the motion.

“We will need to identify the various risks to vulnerable individuals so that we can design a regime with limits and safeguards aimed at minimizing their occurrence,” Dechert said. “We will also need to consider mechanisms to ensure that physicians are clear about the law and how to apply it, and that the relevant authorities will be equally vigilant in monitoring and enforcing any violations.”

The Supreme Court confined itself to the rights of those seeking assistance in dying, he said, not the rights of physicians who will provide that assistance. He pointed out the “legal effect of the ruling is to require that the criminal law free physicians from criminal responsibility for their participation in helping some people die, or in actively causing death.”

“The fact that the law must now permit a zone of lawful participation in bringing about the death of others, however, raises some concerns,” he said. “Many such concerns were raised before the courts in the Carter litigation as reasons justifying the absolute prohibition of these practices.”

Many factors may need consideration in crafting safeguards, he said, such as: treating underlying depression that may lead to requests for physician-assisted death, availability of palliative care options, protection against pressure from family members and the growing dangers of elder abuse.

“Other risks relate to concerns that individuals could choose to seek death because of a faulty diagnosis or prognosis,” he said.

He also asked what effect legislation would have on suicide prevention initiatives.

Dechert underlined the “special risks” people with disabilities would face if the new regime were “overly permissive,” noting concerns that physician-assisted death would “suddenly reinforce the more generalized social prejudice and stereotypes that disabled lives have less value and quality than those of other Canadians.”

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) executive director Alex Schadenberg told CCN there is not enough time to get a bill through the House and the Senate before the next election, due in the fall. Though the EPC hopes the government will invoke the notwithstanding clause to suspend the decision for five years, Schadenberg said there is a realistic prospect the government could ask the court for an extension of the one-year deadline in order to get legislation through that is as protective of vulnerable Canadians as possible.

“There are no safeguards in the end that will truly protect people,” he said.

Meanwhile, McGill University ethicist Margaret Somerville has called for a Royal Commission on physician-assisted death as well as for the federal government to invoke the notwithstanding clause to trump the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the matter.

In a Feb. 19 letter to Justice Minister Peter MacKay, the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and the Law wrote him of the “gravity” Canada faces as a result of the Carter decision that struck down Canada’s laws against physician-assisted suicide.

“This decision does not represent an evolution in the foundational values that bind us together as a society, but a revolution, a radical departure from upholding the value of respect for life,” she said.

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