New Democrat MP Charlie Angus deserves credit for introducing a motion into the House of Commons that calls upon the government of Canada to establish “a Pan-Canadian Palliative and End-of-life Care Strategy” that has the goal of “ensuring all Canadians have access to high quality home-based and hospice palliative end-of-life care.” It is noteworthy that this NDP initiative also has the support of several Liberal and Conservative MPs.
In speaking to the motion, Angus told the Commons that palliative care is intended to improve the quality of life of patients with a life-threatening illness, by ensuring adequate treatment for pain and other physical, psychosocial and spiritual symptoms. Having noted that fewer than 30 per cent of Canadians have access to quality palliative care, Angus said: “That is why New Democrats are asking the other parties to work with them to support this vision for a pan-Canadian strategy to help families and individuals facing this situation and to implement similar models in both rural and urban areas.”
A similar proposal was advanced in 2011 by an all-party committee of the Commons that studied palliative and end-of-life care in communities across Canada. In a salute to this rare instance of non-partisan cooperation, Angus observed: “The Parliament of Canada is known as a relatively toxic place at most times, but members of all parties came together on this vital issue and worked hard. I would like to recognize the members of the Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic parties who worked on the study.”
Dan Alpas, a Conservative MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the President of the Treasury Board, proposed an amendment to Angus’s motion stipulating that the government of Canada did not intend to dictate policies to the provinces on palliative care, but to work with them to improve access to this essential medical service throughout the country. Alpas concluded: “I appreciate the opportunity to stand in this House to speak to the member’s motion, show our support, and bring forward an amendment that we think could allow us all to rally behind this cause.”
Alas, Angus rejected the amendment. As a result, his motion might fail. Regardless, members of all parties have at least made clear that although they differ on the best means, they agree on the vitally important end of improving palliative care in Canada.
Maurice Vellacott, the staunchly pro-life Conservative MP, supports Angus’s motion. In an interview with the National Post, Vellacott contended: “Support for human dignity and quality of life, with investments in pain management and other palliative tools, is where the Canadian conversation should go. We don’t want to go down the dangerous and failed route of assisted suicide and euthanasia tried by other countries.”
Angus likewise told the Commons: “Let us embrace this model (of palliative care) and let us show what dying with dignity in 2014 should be about.”
Excellent, except that Angus stopped well short of opposing euthanasia in principle. The most he had to say in an interview with the Catholic Register was that without access to quality palliative care, people are “not in a fair position to even discuss the issue of assisted suicide,” so that raising the issue now would be “pre-emptive.”
Among New Democrats, such equivocation is not unprecedented. During debate on a bill to decriminalize euthanasia that was rejected in the Commons by a vote of 230 to 57 in 2010, NDP MP Joe Comartin said: “I am opposed at this time. I cannot rule out that at some point, our Canadian society should in fact have a provision that would exempt this type of death from the Criminal Code’s definition of murder, but we are not there today.”
Why not? Comartin explained he believed it was “premature,” because “we do not have anywhere near the services in palliative care in hospices that we should have.”
This argument is patently absurd. It makes no sense to suggest that once adequate palliative care is available to Canadians, it might then be appropriate for Parliament to amend the Criminal Code to permit physicians to murder their patients.
Angus and Comartin are Catholics. They would do well to heed the reaffirmation by Pope John Paul II in his great encyclical The Gospel of Life: “Euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person.”