In what well may be summed up as a typically Canadian compromise, the Senate Committee on euthanasia has managed to issue a report which pleases neither pro-life and disability-advocate groups, nor the pro-radicals.
The Special Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide was sharply split, narrowly voting to recommend that both voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide remain illegal in Canada. It was unanimous, however, in its view that those convicted of mercy killing crimes should receive lighter sentences. It also agreed that palliative care services should be made more widely accessible, and that health-care professionals be given more training in modern methods of pain control.
“Of Life and Death” was tabled in the Senate on June 6, after the seven committee members held 15 months of hearings, with testimony from 150 witnesses and 300 written briefs. The Senators who voted consistently to uphold the current legal prohibition against euthanasia are: Gerald Beaudoin, Therese Lavoie-Roux, Mabel DeWare and Eymard Corbin. Sharon Carstairs and Joan Neiman, who chaired the committee, want an exemption in the Criminal Code to protect those who assist in another’s suicide from criminal penalties. Carstairs and Neiman were joined by Wilbert Keon in recommending that voluntary euthanasia be legalized.
- Palliative Care
Palliative care programs are to become a top priority “in the restructuring of the health care system.” The approach should be integrated, to include home, hospice and institutional programs, supported with volunteer caregivers. The senators recommend national guidelines and standards be introduced, and research expanded. They want increased training for health-care professionals in palliative care.
- Pain Control
The Criminal Code should be amended “to clarify the practice of providing treatment for the purpose of alleviating suffering that may shorten life.” The senators also recommend that there be increased health-care professionals, as well the development of national guidelines and standards.
- Withholding and Withdrawal of Life Sustaining Treatment
The Criminal Code to be amended “to explicitly recognize and to clarify the circumstances in which the withholding and withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment is legally acceptable.
The Senators recommend that the federal government sponsor a national campaign to inform the public on their rights in refusing treatment.
- Advance Directives
The Committee recommends that advance directives (or living wills) be legalized in all provinces.
- Assisted Suicide
The majority (5-2) recommend assisted suicide remain a crime. Two senators recommend an exemption in the Criminal Code to protect those who assist another to commit suicide.
The Committee separates euthanasia into three classes.
Voluntary: done in accordance with the wishes of a competent individual or a valid advance directive.
Nonvoluntary: done without the knowledge of the wishes of a competent individual or of an incompetent individual.
Involuntary: done against the wishes of a competent individual or a valid advance directive.
In cases of nonvoluntary and voluntary euthanasia, the Senators unanimously recommend changes in sentencing to allow less severe penalties. They recommend that Parliament create either a third category of murder, or a separate offence of “compassionate homicide,” for murders that contain “essential elements of compassion and mercy.”
The Committee unanimously recommends that nonvoluntary euthanasia remain a crime under the Criminal Code, but the prohibition against voluntary euthanasia was only approved by a slim majority (5-2).
Only involuntary euthanasia warrants the Committee’s unanimous condemnation: it recommends that the Criminal Code prohibition continue, and lighter sentences are not approved.
Pro-life groups, Church spokesmen and disability rights activists, al immediately condemned the report’s recommendations for lighter sentencing.
Cheryl Eckstein, of the Compassionate Healthcare Network, called the move “utterly scandalous.” She called on parliament to shore up the existing homicide laws that grant all persons, regardless of abilities or disabilities, equal protection.
Ted Gerk, president of the Pro-Life Society of British Columbia, said, “Killing out of compassion and pity is the most dangerous type of crime there is. There is no way to judge the true motives of the individual. Everyone in Canada,” he continued, “from all walks of life, disabled or not, ill or healthy, has an equal right to life.”
Both the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian conference of Catholic Bishops criticized the sentencing recommendations. Brian Stiller, executive director of the EFC, said his organization is “deeply disturbed” be the move, which he sees as suggesting that “some are more deserving of protection than others.”
Mr. Stiller’s comments were echoed in a press release from the CCCB, which states, “This approach is open to abuse and diminishes respect for human life by signaling that the life of a person who is old, infirm, chronically ill or disabled is of less value.” MP Sharon Hayes, chair of Reform.
Party’s Family Task Force, also criticized the call for lighter penalties in euthanasia cases. “Nowhere is compassion or mercy defined,” in the report, she pointed out. “Such a recommendation will only further undermine the integrity of our legal system and respect for the law,” she added.
Prime Minister Chretien has not yet announced the government’s reaction to the Senate report, other than to reiterate that it will be carefully studied and that legislation will be drawn up if appropriate.
- Palliative care must become a top priority
- Training for pain control must be increased
- Criminal Code must “explicitly recognize” when the withdrawing of life-sustaining treatment is legal
- Legalize living wills
- Assisted suicide remain a crime
- Parliament must create another category of murder, calling it “compassionate homicide.”