MP Michael Cooper, while not thrilled with Bill C-14, said the legislation must pass to avoid a legal vaccuum on assisted suicide. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Pro-life MPs face quandary over assisted-suicide bill

  • April 27, 2016

OTTAWA – Pro-life MPs are accepting that the battle against assisted suicide is one that can’t be won, but are looking at ways they can help implement protections for vulnerable people.

Though some pro-life groups are calling for the federal government to invoke the notwithstanding clause on Bill C-14, pro-life MPs don’t see that as a good option.

The Supreme Court of Canada has given Parliament until June 6 to pass legislation on euthanasia and assisted suicide, otherwise the court decision that struck down the Criminal Code provisions against assisted suicide as unconstitutional will come into effect, leaving a legal vacuum. “It is important that legislation is passed,” said Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who co-chaired the recent special-joint Parliamentary Committee on Assisted Dying. He and the other two Conservative MPs on the Committee issued a dissenting report that he is pleased influenced the drafting of Bill C-14.

“I don’t think there could be anything worse than not having legislation.”

Cooper is concerned no legislation would create a legal vacuum similar to that on abortion, where there are no laws restricting abortion. That legal vacuum would also create “uncertainty for physicians, for patients and leave no safeguards for vulnerable persons,” he said.

“That is a completely unacceptable situation,” he said. “I’m going to look at the bill carefully. There are some important positives, but some serious shortcomings.”

Cooper is glad the bill reflected elements of the committee’s dissenting report and did not go as far as the committee recommended in allowing advanced directives for those with dementia, for those with mental illness and an opening for competent minors. But he would like some substantial amendments and will consult with his constituents before he decides how to vote.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said Bill C-14 has left him “gravely concerned.”

“This legislation does not protect the conscience rights of health-care practitioners,” he said. “The trumpeted ‘safeguards’ are highly subjective and do not provide the necessary certainty that the vulnerable will be protected, and there is no mechanism in this legislation for advance legal review.

“The absence of conscience protection will have a significant negative impact on the medical profession. The absence of objective safeguards or advance legal review makes the so-called ‘safeguards’ in this legislation a matter of mere smoke and mirrors.”

Cooper said one of the main safeguards in the legislation is limiting euthanasia and assisted suicide to physical illnesses. But a lack of a referral to a psychiatrist to determine whether there are underlying mental illness issues limiting capacity and consent is a problem in the bill.

“It is also concerning that nurse practitioners can make the decision alone, without the involvement of physicians, as to whether a patient meets the criteria for physician-assisted death,” he said. “That is particularly concerning in the context of persons with underlying mental health challenges.”

Like Genuis, Cooper sees lack of conscience protection for physicians and allied professionals as a serious shortcoming.

“It is important that everyone’s Charter rights are respected, both patients and health professionals,” he said.

Liberal MP John McKay questioned whether adding protection for conscience rights into Criminal Code amendments is possible. Since the rules governing physicians, pharmacists and other health care professionals are under provincial jurisdiction, “I just don’t know if the Criminal Code has the jurisdictional authority to intrude into provincial jurisdiction.”

McKay warned Bill C-14 in its present form may be as good as it gets, given strong pressures to have even more “progressive” legislation as recommended by the Parliamentary Committee and the Provincial/Territorial panel. The Liberals will be allowed to vote their conscience on the bill.

As pro-life groups and individuals push for invoking the notwithstanding clause, McKay warns, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.”

“That’s what happened in the original pro-life debate,” he said. “If they want to repeat the same stupid mistakes all over again that’s the way to go about it.

“The Supreme Court of Canada made a unanimous decision. That’s the way it is. It will be the law of the land June 6, whether we have no legislation or we have some legislation. I think the government under the circumstances got it about a right as they can get.”

McKay had been included in what once was a substantial pro-life minority in the Liberal Caucus. However, during the last election campaign Justin Trudeau declared all Liberal candidates must vote in favour of so-called “abortion rights” in order to run.

According to Campaign Life Coalition’s rankings of candidates, for this reason, McKay is no longer ranked as pro-life.

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