OTTAWA (CCN) — Euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide continue to raise thorny jurisdictional questions as the federal government seeks another six months to craft legislation on these contentious issues.
The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) reserved judgment Jan. 11 after hearing arguments for and against granting Parliament an extension on the Carter decision, which struck down some of the Criminal Code provisions against assisted suicide last Feb. 6. The SCC’s year-long suspension of the decision is almost up. The federal government wants the suspension extended until Aug. 6. Meanwhile, Quebec went ahead with its so-called “medical aid in dying” euthanasia law Dec. 10.
Robert Frater, representing the Attorney General of Canada, pointed out the court has granted extensions on other Charter matters, but none “go to life and death issues” like this one, and require two levels of government to legislate.
The fact that the federal government is not objecting to the province of Quebec’s seeking an exemption from any extension of Carter led several justices to ask if that spoke to an inconsistency regarding the position Ottawa is taking on its jurisdiction over the Criminal Code.
Quebec went ahead with its euthanasia law in December, arguing so-called “medical aid in dying” is health care and therefore under provincial jurisdiction.
“You’ve got the criminal law power,” said one justice. “But you’ve just said to us, if in fact they go ahead in Quebec, there are no criminal law consequences . . .”
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin asked if each territory and province “adopted their own scheme would there be any need for any federal legislation?”
She questioned whether the federal government was making the call as “a matter of political acceptance,” or whether it was accepting it “from a legal point of view.”
Frater explained that in light of the Quebec Court of Appeal decision in December that the province could go ahead with its medical aid in dying bill, that ruling was for now “the rule of law” so it was being accepted for practical reasons. “We are not in any way ceding jurisdiction,” he said.
Lawyer for the appellants in the Carter case Joseph J. Arvay said he “adamantly opposes an extension,” but it if is granted, the second option is to “grant a mechanism” for those seeking exemptions.
He said Canada’s “acceding to Quebec’s” desire for an exemption “is just politics.”
“It’s not principled,” he said. “It would be principled to give the exemption to everyone. If you give the exemption to everyone, maybe you need a judge to determine” who would qualify for a doctor-assisted-death.
Arvay also said the Supreme Court had “already read down the legislation,” by saying physician-assisted death should apply only to adults, to those who are competent and suffering intolerably.
Justice Michael Moldaver asked if he meant “we should be reading as if the Criminal Code had already been amended, “that we read in the law?”
“That’s what you did!” said Arvay.
Moldaver said maybe Parliament will want to require judicial oversight and other measures to ensure that “as far as possible we will not be killing people who shouldn’t be killed.” Parliament may also want to define competence “for Criminal Code purposes, for allowing someone to deliberately take someone’s life with impunity.”
Arvay argued “real suffering people” will face “the very cruel choice” while waiting for Carter to come into effect: they are either “going to suffer horribly or die prematurely” because they choose to commit suicide earlier than they might if the legal option to have a physician-assisted death is available to them.
He told the justices the only Criminal Code issues under debate were those that arose from the Provincial/Territorial panel’s recommendations: whether or not physician-assisted-dying should be allowed to mature minors; whether laws should protect not just the doctor but also the health care team; whether nurses would be allowed to carry out assisted deaths; and whether assisted deaths should be given to those who were competent at time of an advanced directive, but not competent later. The other Criminal Code matters were decided in Carter, according to Arvay.
Malliha Wilson, speaking on behalf of the Attorney General of Ontario, said Ontario supported the federal government’s seeking an extension, because without a Criminal Code amendment, uncertainty is created regarded what the provinces and territories can and cannot do. She also spoke of the need to prevent “medical tourism” resulting from different rules across the country.
Jean-Yves Bernard for the Quebec Attorney General defended its medical aid in dying bill as provincial jurisdiction and part of a continuum of care including palliative care.
Toward the end of the hearing, Moldaver pointed out if the Supreme Court did not grant an extension, Parliament could still use the notwithstanding clause or override the provision of the Charter to obtain a delay.
After the hearing, Canadian Association for Community Living executive vice-president Michael Bach told journalists it supported the extension because there are not enough safeguards for vulnerable people.
“We don’t have access or a right to palliative care in this country,” Bach said. “We are going to give a right to assisted suicide before we give a right to palliative care.”
Bach warned of coercion seen in other jurisdictions and forcing people into making unwanted choices.
Bach said his organization and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities say physicians should not be authorizing assisted death. A court, a tribunal, an independent panel, not a “physician in his or her office,” should make the determination, he said.
Canada’s euthanasia and assisted suicide regime will be “the most permissive in the world,” he said. In countries where euthanasia is not restricted to terminal illness, “at least you have the right to palliative care.”
Rhonda Wiebe of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities said she is worried lack of support for people like herself might lead to her becoming vulnerable to pressure to end her life.
“On bad days, on days, when my mental state is such it becomes overwhelming to be a person with disabilities, I want to have the supports in place,” Wiebe said. “If a non-disabled person says, ‘I feel suicidal today,’ all kinds of mechanisms click in place.”