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Speculation mounts on government response to court decision

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Speculation is mounting on the tack the federal government will take in response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision striking down the law against assisted suicide.

Some, including members of the Tory caucus, 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.

Others are saying it is best to pass MP Steven Fletcher’s private member’s bill in favour of physician assisted suicide quickly so it and euthanasia are not election issues when Canada goes to the polls Oct. 19. Physician assisted suicide is extremely popular in opinion polls.

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 that 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 Peter Stockland, a veteran journalist with extensive experience covering Parliament Hill. “Nobody’s sure quite what to do at this point.”

“Nobody wants to touch this, and we could be looking at a year of just fiddling around,” he said. “There is active talk of going back to the court and asking for an extension on the year, precisely because it is an election year and there is a provision that allows for that to be done.”

“I’ve been calling for the notwithstanding clause with full knowledge that it’s very unlikely to happen,” said former Liberal MP Pat O’Brien who left the party to sit as an independent over the redefinition of marriage and now advises a number of pro-life and pro-family groups.

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

Politically, the issue of physician assisted suicide “is not a winner for anyone,” though both the Liberals and the New Democrats “would be heavily for this,” O’Brien said, noting that among Conservatives there is a “bigger difference of opinion.”

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.”

At the same time, his coalition is “facing reality” that physician assisted suicide needs restrictions. “We want to make sure the process of requesting and gaining euthanasia or assisted suicide is not easy,” he said. “It should be at least as hard as being declared incompetent to manage your own affairs.”

He suggested having physician assisted suicide approved by a court or a committee of experts instead of only one physician perhaps with a second opinion.

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.

Surveys show widespread support for assisted suicide, Steenhout said, but Living with Dignity commissioned an Ipsos Reid poll that showed only one third of respondents knew “medical aid in dying” meant a doctor killing a patient with a lethal injection.

“Living with Dignity’s mission is not just fighting the legalization of euthanasia,” he said. “We are really about helping people have good lives, and we’re dealing with realities.”

“Safeguards are an illusion,” he said. “But we don’t want to get to a point where it’s a free for all. We want to make sure we minimize the damages as much as possible.”

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.”

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