“I would ask Parliament to stand up and have a backbone,” Margaret Somerville said to hundreds of conservative-minded influencers at the Manning Networking Conference that was held Mar. 5-7. The founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law has also called for the use of the notwithstanding clause to give the Royal Commission time to report or for Parliament to have the time to consider the issues raised by legalizing physician-assisted death. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Somerville urges politicians to show “backbone” after Supreme Court euthanasia decision

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  • March 9, 2015

OTTAWA - Margaret Somerville has called on Parliamentarians to "have a backbone" in dealing with euthanasia in Canada.

Speaking on a euthanasia panel March 7, Somerville reiterated an earlier call that Parliament set up a Royal Commission to investigate the implications of the recent Supreme Court Carter decision that gives Parliament a year to come up with a new law to allow physician-assisted death under certain circumstances.

“I would ask Parliament to stand up and have a backbone,” the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law told hundreds of conservative movement movers and shakers at the Manning Networking Conference here March 5-7.

Somerville said everyone she has spoken to has told her that it is “impossible to deal with this in” 12 months, that it is not enough time “for the most important decision Parliament has ever made.” In the Carter decision, Canada’s highest court struck down Criminal Code sections prohibiting assisted suicide, paving the way for physician-assisted death that could include voluntary euthanasia.

Somerville called for the use of the notwithstanding clause to give the Royal Commission time to report or for Parliament to have the time to fully consider all the issues raised by legalizing physician-assisted death. Invoking this Charter provision would suspend the court’s decision for five years, though she acknowledged the use of the clause might not be politically popular.

Somerville said the Supreme Court of Canada “bought into all of the pro-euthanasia arguments” that were found in the trial judge’s 377-page decision. Both the Supreme Court and the trial judge treated physician-assisted death as an incremental change, and that there was basically no difference between it and “currently accepted end-of-life interventions.”

“The ‘no-difference’ argument is a major plank in pro-euthanasia arguments,” she said. They argue: “All we are doing is one small, incremental step along a path we have already taken.”

Legalizing the taking of life is the acceptance of the argument there is no difference between allowing a patient to die and killing him or her, she said.

“It’s a seismic shift in our most important value of respect for life.”

Also participating on the panel were Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who introduced two private members’ bills in support of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia under restricted circumstances, and Canadian Research Chair in Palliative Care Dr. Harvey Chochinov.

Chochinov pointed out only 15-30 per cent of Canadians have access to quality palliative care at end of life. Without good palliative care, Canadians may have legitimate reasons to fear what might happen when they die, he said.

All of those in medicine who deal with “catastrophic, life-threatening illness” see patients who experience a great deal of “anguish” and “existential distress,” he said. Under these circumstances, “it’s not uncommon to hear” patients say, “I no longer want to be alive.”

These wishes are strongest in those with pain of moderate severity or greater, those who less available family or support systems and those who experience depression, he said.

Fletcher, who represented the libertarian view on physician-assisted death, said he considered the Carter decision “very conservative” because of its stress on “autonomy” and the ability of individuals to control their own lives.

The MP and former cabinet minister, who experienced terrible physical suffering after his vehicle collided with a moose in 1996, leaving him a quadriplegic, supports the “right” of competent adults to ask for help in terminating their lives when facing unbearable suffering.

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