OTTAWA (CCN) — Conservative MPs quashed a potentially caucus-dividing Liberal motion to fast-track legislation on “physician assisted suicide” (PAS) Feb. 24 by a vote of 146-132.
Instead, the Tories indicated the government will 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.
Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) executive director Alex Schadenberg told CCN there is no time to get a bill through the House and the Senate before the next election. 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.
The Liberal motion, introduced by Liberal 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.”
“For adults who are mentally competent but suffering grievous and irremediable medical conditions, the court ruled that the current prohibition in the Criminal Code infringes the right to life, liberty, and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,” Trudeau told the House.
Trudeau pointed out the Quebec National Assembly took four-and-a-half years, including a full year of consultations, to craft its “medical aid in dying” legislation.
“The Supreme Court has given us 12 months, which is reasonable, but with the summer recess and the fall election, that gives barely more than 12 sitting weeks for us parliamentarians,” he said. “That gives us enough time to do this, but no time to waste.”
Trudeau said he had a “strong opinion” on the issue because he was with his father when he died.
“I know that we must respect personal freedoms and choice while ensuring as a society that the most vulnerable among us are protected,” he said. “I believe that the Supreme Court made the right decision and that our laws must be consistent with its ruling because that is the right thing to do.”
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 PAS, voted with the Opposition parties, the Tories otherwise displayed a united front against the motion.
“We will be opposing the motion because 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.
Dechert pointed out that many Canadians are unaware they already have the right to refuse or stop treatment and they should not confuse these measures with PAS.
Dechert also zeroed in on the difference between physician assisted suicide, in which the physician writes a lethal prescription that the patient self-administers, and voluntary euthanasia.
“Voluntary euthanasia occurs when a physician actively causes a person’s death at their request, typically through a lethal injection,” he said. “From the perspective of a person who is suffering intolerably and wishes to die with a physician’s assistance, these two practices may appear indistinguishable. However, from the current criminal law perspective, they are different crimes with different penalties.”
Voluntary euthanasia “meets the definition of murder,” Dechert said, while physician assisted suicide falls under “assisting suicide.”
The Supreme Court decision calls for “physician assisted dying,” which includes both PAS and voluntary euthanasia for those unable to administer their own lethal cocktail.
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.”
“Although the court has now rejected those arguments with respect to an absolute prohibition, this does not mean that those concerns and risks are not important and legitimate considerations moving forward,” he said. “Indeed, the trial judge and the Supreme Court were clear that those risks and concerns are real.”
Dechert stressed that the risks “will be borne by vulnerable individuals.”
“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,” he 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.”
Many factors may need consideration in crafting safeguards, he said, such as: treating underlying depression that may lead to requests for physician assisted dying; 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 dying would “suddenly reinforce the more generalized social prejudice and stereotypes that disabled lives have less value and quality than those of other Canadians.”
“Many disabled individuals find the assumption that life with a disability is less meaningful or somehow of lesser quality to be devaluing,” he said. “We must take these concerns seriously.”
McGill University ethicist Margaret Somerville has called for the government to establish a Royal Commission to investigate the implications of physician assisted dying and for the use of the notwithstanding clause in order to give the commission time to present its findings.