The Liberal government has asked the Supreme Court of Canada for an extension beyond the Feb. 6 deadline to come up with a new federal law on euthanasia and assisted-suicide.When the Court threw out the Criminal Code prohibitions on aiding and abetting a suicide, it stayed the decision for one year so the government could create a new law regulating assisted-suicide. With the long summer recess and federal election campaign, the issue was put on the government back-burner. The Liberal government says it needs until August to come up with a new law, although the real timeline would be a four-month extension because the House is scheduled to recess in late June.
In its motion to the Court, the Justice Department said an extension should be granted to ensure protection of the vulnerable while the government formulates a new law for Parliament to consider. In its motion, the government stated, “given the significance of the task and the need for a complex regulatory regime, the preparation of appropriate federal and provincial responses will be a formidable challenge. Six months is a reasonable request in the current circumstances.”
The motion also said an extension to permit a proper regulatory response by the government would address the February 2015 ruling’s “ambiguity” which “gives rise to a very high level of legal uncertainty” of what is and is not permitted. As it stands, it is unclear what, if any, restrictions would apply to assisted-suicide. Campaign Life Coalition has argued that absent a new law, euthanasia and assisted-suicide will operate much like abortion, in a legal vacuum, tolerated but not specifically permitted.
In a press release, the justice department stated, “Canadians have made it clear that they are looking for a real conversation about personal choice, health care and end-of-life-care, and strong protection of the vulnerable,” and that the six-month extension suspending the Court’s decision in necessary to “continue the good work that is under way and responsibly prepare for the full implementation of the Carter decision.” Acknowledging, “an extension of the suspension will mean that some Canadians will have to wait to access physician-assisted dying, it is necessary – and responsible – to ensure that sufficient protections are in place across the entire country.”
Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition welcomed the request for an extension, although he said the EPC questions “whether six-months is a sufficient time-frame to accomplish its legislative task?”
The Liberal leader in the House of Commons said he does not want the deliberations rushed. Dominic LeBlanc, the Government House Leader, told the CBC’s Chris Hall that “my priority is to ensure that Parliamentarians have an opportunity to do some quick and expedited work around possible legislation to fill the void that would be in place with the Supreme Court” ruling. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the federal government would like to collaborate with provinces, stakeholders, and the public. She told CBC Radio “I’m committed to ensuring that we approach the issue in a comprehensive way that respects the personal beliefs and autonomy of families and individuals and also looks to ensure that we protect those who could be vulnerable.”
Wanda Morris, CEO of Dying with Dignity Canada, said an extension was “unconscionable” because it would impose hardship on people who would like to avail themselves of assisted-suicide. She claimed provincial health regulations and regulatory health bodies provide a sufficient legal framework for assisted-suicide to be carried out.
The justices of the Supreme Court have not indicated whether it will accept or reject the request for an extension.
Last month, the government constituted a joint House of Commons-Senate committee to consult the public and stakeholders on the issue and report back to Parliament in late February with recommendations. The Justice Department will then draft a law that will be sent to the House of Commons for debate and study by the House justice committee, before votes in the House and Senate.
Both the Justice Department and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have praised the Quebec law as a model for Canada’s assisted-suicide regime. Pro-life groups say the Quebec law has minimal restrictions and does not limit assisted-suicide to terminally ill patients.
Campaign Life Coalition has called on the government to invoke the notwithstanding clause to put aside the Supreme Court decision for five years while a new law protecting all human life until natural death can be enacted.