Robert Leckey is director of the Paul-André Crépeau Centre for Private and Comparative Law at McGill University.
On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada declared that the law banning assisted suicide violates constitutional rights. The law, aimed at protecting the vulnerable, reached too broadly by denying physician-assisted death to competent adults whose terminal medical condition inflicts intolerable suffering on them. While the ball is now in Parliament’s court, many difficult questions face our elected representatives at the federal and provincial levels.
Quebec’s experience on these matters is instructive. In June, Quebec adopted legislation regarding end-of-life-care. The law sets out a rigorous process by which terminally ill individuals can obtain medical aid in dying. It also recognizes a right to receive palliative care. We can draw three lessons.
First, respectful, meaningful public deliberation on delicate moral and legal questions remains possible. Quebeckers had numerous opportunities to participate in the legislative process. The bill that was finally adopted drew support across party lines.
Of course, not everyone in Quebec approves of the law. There’s a general sense, however, that the path exemplified the legislative process at its best. This is reassuring at a moment when social media intensify the shrillness of public discourse and it seems that politicians often prefer to leave hard social questions to judges.
In the wake of another recent Charter judgment, the federal government turned its reform regarding sex work into a divisive, ideological exercise. Canadians should demand better from the government on this matter.
Second, Quebec’s law shows the complexity of legislating in this area. It’s one thing to agree, as polls show most Canadians do, that a total ban on assisted suicide goes too far. It’s another to attempt the delicate line-drawing between permissible and impermissible cases.
For example, Quebec’s law tightly circumscribes medical aid in dying. Having a serious and incurable illness and experiencing constant and unbearable suffering aren’t enough if the patient isn’t at the end of her life.
The law imposes requirements for verifying that a patient requesting lethal medical aid has given consent freely and informedly. For some, the conditions are too onerous. For others, they don’t do enough to protect individuals vulnerable to pressure.
Third, whatever our view on the big questions of morality, life and death, concrete questions of resources are inescapable. Like those in other provinces, Quebec’s government is strapped for cash. The palliative-care community is worried that budget constraints will undermine the law’s promise of a right to end-of-life care.
It can be uncomfortable to combine the moral questions of how we wish to end our lives with the financial questions of the health care our governments can afford. But denying the connection is illogical. Whatever our views on assisted suicide, it is beyond dispute that the health care system dedicates ever-growing amounts of public funds to prolonging life, often without prolonging quality of life.
By striking down the criminal ban on assisted suicide, Friday’s judgment assigns homework to the Parliament of Canada. This issue’s health-care dimension means that our provincial governments also have work to do. Let’s hope all are up to the task.Report Typo/Error
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