Senator Sharon Carstairs had been expected to introduce a Senate private members bill on assisted suicide this fall. Appointed a Senator in October l955, she began attending meetings of the Senate Special Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide and shortly thereafter became an official Committee member.
As a member of the Committee, her line of questioning would lead one to believe that she might propose a bill on assisted suicide. She was interested in the working of such a law and the type of guidelines that would be required. She questioned David Thomas, Crown Attorney from Timmins, Ontario as to “decriminalization altogether” to give competent persons the right to assisted suicide.
Dr. Suzanne Philips-Nootens of the Ethics Committee at the University of Sherbrooke was asked by Senator Carstairs, “Why can we not have euthanasia and assisted suicide for what I think would be a very small minority who would choose to exercise it?”
However, according to her research assistant, Senator Carstairs is still considering a bill on assisted suicide, but she has chosen instead to present a bill concerning pain control and withdrawal of treatment. The bill will be based upon the findings and recommendations in Chapter IV and Chapter V of the Committee report Of Life and Death. These recommendations were unanimously adopted by the Committee, whereas those on assisted suicide (Chapter VII) were not. In the case of Chapter VII a minority recommended exceptions, with safeguards to allow assisted suicide. It is understood that Senators Carstairs, Keon and Neiman represented the minority.
The concerns expressed in Chapter IV relate to improper use of or withholding of adequate pain medication and the recommendations address the issue by proposing changes to the Criminal Code which would “Clarify the practice of providing treatment for the purpose of alleviating suffering that may shorten life.” They call for guidelines, standards, education and training with respect to pain control and sedation practices. Chapter V presents the current view on withholding and withdrawal of life sustaining treatment. It is recognized in common law that patients can refuse consent for treatment or can refuse to allow treatment to continue, but the discussion centres on some difficult, unresolved aspects of the matter: whether to stop treatment of incompetent patients or children or those in a persistent vegetative state who are not in danger of imminent death; whether to withhold “futile” treatment from patients who demand such and whether the administration of nutrition and hydration (food and water) should be considered a treatment. The Committee states that it considers “artificial hydration and nutrition as treatment” and recommends Criminal Code amendments to clarify circumstances where treatment can be legally withheld or withdrawn. It also calls for guidelines, education and research in this regard.
The Senator’s bill could be ready as soon as September 24, l996. As the first piece of proposed legislation arising out of a year and a half of Committee deliberations it will require careful attention.