Time and time again, federal politicians have shown a stunning reluctance to discuss – much less support – changes to the Criminal Code that would bring the law into line with what a majority of Canadians believe: that the terminally ill should have the right to decide when and how they want to die.
That’s partly because pondering death, not to mention pondering situations where one might choose death, makes most people uneasy. But as medicine advances and lifespans lengthen, it is a necessary discussion for the country to have. Conservative MP Steven Fletcher should be applauded for raising the issue, by introducing a pair of private member’s bills to legalize doctor-assisted suicide.
Mr. Fletcher became a quadriplegic in 1996, as the result of a terrible car accident. Just 23 years old at the time, his experience of physical pain and suffering informed his decision to draft legislation. Mr. Fletcher’s story is a testament in favour of fighting for life. But his bill appreciates that others in different circumstances – extreme pain combined with terminal illness – may choose differently.
One of Mr. Fletcher’s bills would decriminalize doctor-assisted death under restricted circumstances. Another would make the process transparent by setting up a commission to monitor the system. Taken together, they are designed to rewrite the Criminal Code section criminalizing assisted suicide, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Unfortunately, Mr. Fletcher doesn’t appear to have much support from his colleagues. Parliamentarians last voted against assisted suicide in 2010, and Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the government’s stance is unchanged. Since 1993, nine MPs have put forward bills to rewrite the law. There is no indication this time will be any more successful than previous ones. But the fact that he’s forcing a discussion counts as something of a victory.
And in the absence of the federal government moving to amend the law on assisted suicide, other interested parties are stepping in. Before the provincial election was called, Quebec was on the verge of passing a bill that would have permitted physicians to end a life in cases combining terminal illness, unendurable pain and, most importantly, clear patient choice. Even if eventually passed, the Quebec bill’s permission of assisted suicide would run straight into the federal Criminal Code’s prohibition. The Supreme Court of Canada has also agreed to revisit the issue, in cases involving two British Columbia women; if it decides in favour of a right to assisted suicide, that could overturn parts of the Criminal Code.
It would be preferable and far more reasonable for MPs and the government to tackle this issue head on, with legislation outlining the rare circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted. Poll after poll shows most Canadians are ready to support physician-assisted suicide, in certain circumstances. Ottawa needs to overcome its fear of talking about death.