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Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s response, a two-sentence statement promising to listen to both sides of a “sensitive issue,” underlined the touchiness of assisted suicide. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s response, a two-sentence statement promising to listen to both sides of a “sensitive issue,” underlined the touchiness of assisted suicide. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Timing of assisted-suicide law could affect its contents Add to ...

This was the issue politicians didn’t want to touch, and now Supreme Court has thrust a decision on assisted suicide upon them. One big political question the government faces is when to act – and timing might dictate the nature of the law.

The Supreme Court has issued a landmark decision, for the first time ruling that competent adults suffering intolerably from a medical condition have the right to a doctor-assisted suicide. The court has given politicians a year to change the law.

It’s hard to exaggerate just how much the political parties wanted to avoid this. They’ve squirmed over this issue. It divides all parties to some extent, and MPs’ ridings, too. Manitoba Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who is paralyzed from the neck down since a car accident at age 23, presented a private member’s bill to legalize assisted suicide last March, but MPs weren’t itching to debate it. Two senators picked it up instead.

Now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has an uncomfortable decision in an election year. And a big part of it is when. Does he try to punt, putting it off until after the election? Or does he fear that would only heighten questions, including from social conservatives in his party’s base, that his election candidates will struggle to answer?

“The government’s message is the economy and jobs. So these moral issues are disruptive to that,” said Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth, one of two senators sponsoring a version of Mr. Fletcher’s bill. “But that’s true for any party, I suppose.”

Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s response, a two-sentence statement promising to listen to both sides of a “sensitive issue,” underlined the touchiness.

He told reporters the government will “take the time” to answer. For now, it seems, the reflex is to wait.

Note, too, that Mr. MacKay didn’t declare the Supreme Court’s decision an outrage. He has argued that legalizing assisted suicide is a “slippery slope,” and he could have condemned unelected judges (even if most are appointed by Mr. Harper ) for making law in Parliament’s place. But he didn’t.

That makes it seem unlikely the Conservative government will take the nuclear option – invoking the notwithstanding clause to override the court’s decision. It’s always controversial to use a clause whose purpose is overriding the Charter of Rights. Using it on this issue would make assisted suicide a heated political issue, and Mr. Harper has consistently tried to cool it down. The opposition NDP and Liberals haven’t been completely clear on where they stand – but both said the Supreme Court’s decision had to be followed. Using the nothwithstanding clause would create a partisan fight.

This isn’t an easy wedge issue, not for any party, and not for the Conservatives. Many MPs in Mr. Harper’s caucus believe assisted suicide is an affront to the sanctity of life. But not all. And the other side of this issue is represented by individuals suffering terrible pain facing a difficult end-of-life decision, and their families. It doesn’t fit slogans.

But there’s also no political room for the Conservatives to wait for the current law to be voided 12 months from now. That would leave a wide-open regime, without the safeguards most expect, especially social conservatives. If they are re-elected, they’d have to act eventually.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of a group called the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, wants the government to invoke the nothwithstanding clause – but if it doesn’t, he wants strict controls, including objective, limited criteria for the kinds of cases in which suicide can be assisted, and prior approval of physicians’ plans to assist a suicide by a vetting committee.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada called for the government to quickly propose “stringent safeguards.”

It does appear the government is leaning toward presenting a law framing assisted suicide, but it can do it in different ways. When the Supreme Court stuck down prostitution laws, Mr. Mackay presented a tough replacement, and those who claim it flew in the face of the court’s ruling can only challenge the law anew.

There’s already a bill the government could pass quickly – Mr. Fletcher’s. He expressed the hope the government will move rapidly, before an election, and pointed out that’s the best way to prevent the issue from becoming an election issue.

But Mr. Fletcher’s bill has already been criticized by opponents of assisted suicide; they want far more restrictive language, and tighter limits in its use. If Mr. Harper decides he must act before an election to prevent assisted suicide blowing up as a tricky issue during an election campaign, chances are he’ll feel he must answer the concerns of social conservatives in his base – placing tight restrictions in the law

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