The federal Liberals may be moving closer to assisted-suicide legislation following the party’s national convention in late October.
Convention delegates endorsed a motion calling for the repeal of Section 241(b) of the Criminal Code which would allow doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives. The initiative was sponsored by the Young Liberals of Canada.
While Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Justice Minister Allan Rock have downplayed the proposal, pro-life supporters are concerned the Liberals may make assisted-suicide a major issue in the next federal election.
Prime Minister Chrétien said assisted-suicide is “a very delicate problem,” similar to abortion and capital punishment. He said any proposed Criminal Code amendments require more study and consolation, adding that assisted-suicide is not a high priority for the government.
Mr. Rock meanwhile, was equally noncommittal. “I think we have to look at it carefully and discuss with colleagues in caucus and cabinet where we should go from here,” he said.
Neither Chrétien nor Rock would commit themselves to following party policy on assisted-suicide.
Under the Liberal plan, a terminally ill patient could legally commit suicide under strict conditions. These would involve written confirmation from two doctors that the patient is terminally ill and is of sound mind. Patients would also be required to sign an affidavit stating their intentions. As well, a provincial medical board would determine if the affidavit conditions were met.
The policy would include a one-month waiting period before the patient is actually put to death.
The Liberal plan is similar to the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in Australia’s Northern Territories. The Australian law, which came into effect July 1, is the world’s first legally sanctioned assisted-suicide question.
While the newspaper editorials have urged Chrétien to move ahead with the legislation, there are indications the prime minister is reluctant to take on such a controversial issue. Pro-lifers however, fear the prime minister is gauging his overall electoral support before tipping his hand.
A Canadian law prohibiting doctor assisted-suicide has been in effect since 1892. Two high profile suicides, Sue Rodriguez in British Columbia and Austin Bastable in Ontario, drew attention to the law and led to increase pressure for new legislation.