Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller in 2015. Photo by Michael Swan

Poor timing: assisted suicide bill comes at time of First Nations suicide crisis

  • April 15, 2016

OTTAWA – Canadians Catholic bishops, Catholic organizations and pro-life groups are concerned about the Liberal government’s assisted suicide Bill C-14, especially given the tragedy at Attawapiskat.

“The Supreme Court decision and current legislative efforts are in stark contradiction to the endeavours of individuals, families and communities to counteract the dangers and sufferings of suicide — as we have seen this week in Attawapiskat, Ont.,” said an April 15 statement from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).

The northern Ontario First Nations reserve is in a state of emergency after 11 suicide attempts in April alone. On April 11, officials were able to prevent 13 young people, including a nine-year old, from acting on a suicide pact. In March, 28 people tried to end their lives in the community of 2,000. This crisis was the subject of an emergency debate in the House of Commons just before Bill C-14. 

“In the midst of one of the worst suicide crises in our country’s history, the federal government has tabled Bill C-14, which proposes to legalize both euthanasia and assisted suicide across Canada under the pseudonym ‘medical assistance in dying,’ ” said the Physicians’ Alliance Against Euthanasia. “The waltz of words continues, as we malign palliative care by presenting ‘medical assistance in dying’ as the only alternative to an agonizingly painful death.”

“It’s tragic so many individuals who appear to be physically healthy feel they have no option but to end their lives,” said constitutional lawyer Albertos Polizogopoulos, who represented several intervenors before the Supreme Court of Canada in the Carter case, and is a legal spokesman for Canadian Physicians for Life.

Polizogopoulos said the contrast between the tragedy in Attawapiskat and the wording of the assisted suicide bill is in “stark contradiction.” The bill “sends a mixed message in respect to suicide and the value of life,” he said.

While governments are pushing to bring mental health counsellors to Attawapiskat, once the bill is passed, “we’re now going to send up nurse practitioners or physicians” who meet the criteria for the bill, who will make assisted suicide available, he said.

“So you walk into a medical building, and through one door there’s a nurse practitioner who will affirm your decision to end your life and help you go through with it, and across the hall an individual trying to dissuade you from ending your life,” he said.

“Bill C-14, no matter how it may be amended, is an affront to human dignity, an erosion of human solidarity, and a danger to all vulnerable persons — particularly the aged, disabled, infirm and sick who so often find themselves isolated and marginalized,” the CCCB said. “Moreover, it is a violation of the sacrosanct duty of health-care providers to heal, and the responsibility of legislators and citizens to assure and provide protection for all, especially those persons most at risk.”

The bishops reiterated their call for all levels of government to defend and protect life to renew efforts for accessible palliative care and to protect the conscience rights of health-care professionals and institutions.

“At a time when our priority should be fostering a culture of love, and enhancing resources for those suffering and facing death, assisted suicide leads us down a dark path,” said Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins in an April 14 statement.” At first sight it may seem an attractive option, a quick and merciful escape from the suffering that can be experienced in life, but fuller reflection reveals its grim implications, not only for the individual but for our society, and especially for those who are most vulnerable. Such fuller reflection is sorely needed now.”

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller said the legislation “sets Canada on a tragic course of offering death as the solution to pain and suffering.”

“I am struck by the bleak dissimilarity between this proposed legislation and the papal document Pope Francis released last week, in which he called assisted suicide and euthanasia ‘serious threats to families worldwide,’ ” Miller said.

“The draft legislation appears to make assisted suicide available to anyone whose death is deemed ‘reasonably foreseeable.’ But whose death is not reasonably foreseeable? This level of ambiguity in a law that aims to regulate life and death is not only inexplicable, but also very dangerous.

“I recognize that our legislators face a difficult and agonizing task in attempting to draft legislation in conformity with the direction of the Supreme Court of Canada,” he said. “They have the assurance of my prayers as they engage in this challenging endeavour over the coming weeks and months.”

Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, in an op ed to a local newspaper, said the five-week time frame for the bill to be passed or else Canada faces a legal vacuum, as it does on abortion, puts pro-life legislators “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

“Catholic legislators, ethicists, doctors’ groups may work to mitigate a bad law by trying to ensure legislation does the least harm possible,” he said. “However, as a Catholic bishop I must remind all people of good will the taking the life of an innocent human being is always morally wrong and should not be allowed in our legal or health-care system.

“If it is, then the conscientious rights of those who prefer not to participate — both health care professionals and patients who want a hospital or hospice that won’t kill them — must be respected.”

“This bill puts us, as a nation, on the brink of a fatal precipice,” said Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) director Michele Boulva 

“Christians urgently need to consult their conscience, remembering that ‘legal’ does not mean ‘moral’ and that the opinion of the majority does not determine what is good. An evil remains an evil.”

For the bishops and other groups the absence of explicit protection for conscience rights is troubling.

“The federal government can prevent Canadians from being forced to kill people or arrange for people to be killed,” said Sean Murphy of the Protection of Conscience Project. “It can enact a law stating that no one can be forced to be a party to homicide or suicide.

“Bill C-14 does not do this. Bill C-14 allows coerced participation in killing to continue. . . objectors will not kill patients or help them commit suicide, and many will not arrange for them to be killed or helped to kill themselves by referral or similar means,” he said.

Though Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the government tried to balance the rights of those seeking a medically assisted death with the protection of vulnerable persons through “robust” safeguards, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition executive director Alex Schadeberg said they are not effective.

“The bill requires approval for euthanasia or assisted suicide be done by two independent physicians or nurse practitioners, without requiring before the death oversight from an independent third party,” he said. “The bill permits the doctor or nurse practitioner who approved the act to also be the person who does the act and reports the act. Once the person is dead, it is too late to find out that the person was incompetent or coerced.”

He noted the bill provides legal immunity for anyone who might help someone administer a lethal substance that has been prescribed under the provisions of the law. “This bill provides perfect cover for murder.”

Campaign Life Coalition is urging Members of Parliament to vote “No” on the bill, risking a legal vacuum similar to that regarding abortion if the bill fails to pass before June 6, the deadline when the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision, that struck down sections of the Criminal Code regarding assisted suicide, comes into effect. Instead, Campaign Life Coalition is calling on the government to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to override the Supreme Court’s decision for five years. 

“Campaign Life Coalition opposes any law that allows for a person to kill another person,” said Campaign Life president Jim Hughes. “This bill is deceitful and dangerous and will put at risk the lives of many vulnerable Canadians regardless of the safeguards put forward.”

“This bill is seriously deficient,” said Dr. Will Johnston, president of Canadian Physicians for Life. “The federal government is at risk of botching its last chance at harm reduction in the problems of assisted suicide and euthanasia. There is no necessary waiting period. You don’t have to be dying, your death just has to be ‘foreseeable’ — a term which is not defined in the bill. Further, an heir to your will can make a written request on your behalf.

“This bill does nothing to preserve a safe space for those patients who want to remain untouched by assisted suicide and euthanasia.” 

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