We are a newspaper so mostly we offer news and commentary on current events. Predicting the future is obviously speculative, but for those who wonder what euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide might be like in a decade-and-a-half, look no further than the Report of the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s hand-chosen panel of MPs and senators spent much of February hearing from stakeholders in the “end-of-life” debate and filed its report with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on Feb. 25. Even the Toronto Star thought some of the 21 recommendations went too far, saying it was better to closely adhere to the guidance of the Supreme Court in its February 2015 Carter decision.
The parliamentary panel called for: active euthanasia, wheareas the Supreme Court ostensibly limited its decision to doctor-assisted suicide; giving psychiatric patients access to euthanasia, even though the Supreme Court indicated that any regime of assisted-suicide should be limited to those suffering irremediable physical pain and those who were competent to make such choices; advance directives for assisted-suicide, although the Supreme Court clearly said that a person had to be capable of consenting to assisted-suicide at the time a request for an intervention to cause death was made; that “mature minors” – teens who are not legally adults yet – be allowed to make decisions about assisted-suicide, despite the Supreme Court stating Carter applied only to adults.
None of this is to say that the Carter decision is sacrosanct, or provides sufficient guidance to a euthanasia law that would protect the vulnerable. Carter would permit a broad assisted-suicide licence because the nine justices of the Supreme Court said the standard for access to medically aided death was “irremediable” suffering, which includes non-terminal conditions, and that conditions were irremediable even when patients refused treatments that might have alleviated the suffering caused by those conditions. Under such a standard, Canada would, like Belgium’s very liberal law, grant assisted-suicide to people suffering from such non-terminal maladies as blindness and depression.
The way the euthanasia lobby has framed the question is that Canadians have to choose between a long period of painful languishing before death and a so-called painless dignified exit. This is a false choice, but also a misleading frame. Public policy should focus on alleviating pain and suffering through proper palliative care and community supports. Hospitals should treat requests for assisted-suicide like suicidal ideation and treat the possible underlying psychiatric issues. What our laws should not do is abandon the vulnerable or rush them to an early demise.
The Interim opposes any legalization of assisted-suicide or euthanasia. We urge all MPs to oppose any proposed law that permits the killing of patients by medical professionals. We call on doctors to remember their calling is to heal, and not extinguish the life of those in their care.
The debate over safeguards is a false one. We agree with Conservative MP Michael Cooper, the vice-chair of the parliamentary committee who dissented from the report and who called the recommendations radical and dangerous. Of course they are. But so would a more limited euthanasia regime. This is true in and of itself, but also because experience in jurisdictions like Belgium and the Netherlands teach us that restrictions are routinely ignored and often eventually discarded.
Another name for a restriction on euthanasia is discrimination. Once we accept the Court’s argument that there is a Charter right to so-called aid-in-dying, any safeguard or restriction by definition delineates between those who have that “Charter right” and those who do not. Eventually the courts, legislatures, or medical bodies will expand euthanasia and assisted-suicide to include those groups initially protected from these lethal medical interventions.
Whatever law is proposed by the Trudeau government – and it is worth remembering that he has publicly lauded Quebec’s only slightly less restrictive law – the practice of euthanasia in the years to come will look more like the radical and dangerous proposals of the Report of the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying; it is just a matter of time.
We endorse the effort of Conservative MP Harold Albrecht (Kitchener-Conestoga) who has launched a petition on his website calling for the government to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the constitution. It would not overturn Carter, but it would set aside the decision for five years. Albrecht quite correctly states that instead of rushing to pass a law by the June 6 deadline the Court has given Parliament, let Ottawa and the country carefully consider what they are doing as it talks about giving doctors a licence to kill their patients. Ideally, this would provide the time to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing euthanasia and assisted-suicide. Practically, it gives those concerned about end-of-life decisions time to debate the issues without an artificial deadline hanging over our heads. At the very least, it puts off killing people for a half decade.
Because, as human rights and constitutional lawyer Hugh Scher says, the Carter decision and the parliamentary report lead us to “a dangerous experiment in social policy that is taking Canada into uncharted territory,” it is incumbent upon Canada’s legislators to get this right, and not rush their decision. Ottawa needs (at least) five more years to have any chance of doing the right thing.