Skip to main content

Stockwell Day, a former senior Conservative minister, said opponents of physician-assisted suicide such as him need to contact their MPs to ensure that any new legislation remains restrictive.Chris Wattie/Reuters

After suffering a clear loss in the Supreme Court, opponents of physician-assisted suicide now want to persuade the federal government to impose the tightest possible restrictions on the medical procedure.

Ottawa has three options after the ruling that struck down a key provision of the Criminal Code: do nothing and let the provinces oversee a new system; invoke the notwithstanding clause to keep the legislation on the books; or enact a new law determining how and when competent adults suffering intolerably from a medical condition have the right to a doctor-assisted suicide.

Constitutional-law experts and political insiders said the most likely option at this point is new legislation within the 12-month time frame that was offered by the Supreme Court in its unanimous ruling on Friday.

Stockwell Day, a former senior Conservative minister, said opponents of physician-assisted suicide such as him need to contact their MPs to ensure that any new legislation remains restrictive.

"The Supreme Court has ruled already on the right, now [the issue is] what the law looks like," he said in an interview. "This should be written as narrowly as possible."

Mr. Day said there is much opposition to physician-assisted suicide in the Conservative caucus, stating this is a moment for "active democracy" to ensure that Parliament imposes clear limits on who has access to physician-assisted suicide.

"There will be the temptation for some MPs to shrug and say, 'The Supreme Court has ruled and c'est la vie,'" he said. "But in fact, it's a very important democratic moment."

Carissima Mathen, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said she doubts the government would invoke the notwithstanding clause to bypass the Charter, saying it would be an unprecedented move at the federal level. She added that doing nothing, and allowing provinces to oversee the medical element of the debate, would create havoc.

"The government argued in the case that it was concerned about the risk [of abuse]," Ms. Mathen said. "Clearly it can't let that risk be managed on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis."

The most likely result is new legislation that "will establish federal standards," although the results will be closely scrutinized by the groups that won at the Supreme Court. "Could the government design standards that are overbroad? They'd be vulnerable to a new challenge if they did that," Ms. Mathen said.

Many Conservatives hope that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will allow a free vote if and when the matter comes to the House of Commons. There are clear divisions in the caucus on the matter, with social-conservative MPs such as Stephen Woodworth angered by the ruling.

"I do not agree with legalizing the ability of anyone to take another's life," he said on Friday.

Others agree with the need for new legislation, including Steven Fletcher, who has introduced a private member's bill that would amend the Criminal Code "to allow physicians to assist individuals to end their life."

Tim Powers, a Conservative political commentator, said the goal for the Prime Minister is to manage the matter like he did on the issue of same-sex marriage. Many Conservatives opposed the legislation but the government did not ultimately change it.

The Liberal Party endorsed the legalization of medically assisted death at its policy convention last year, and Leader Justin Trudeau has called on his troops to canvass voters on the matter.

"The rights of the suffering are a personal and emotional issue for me, having cared for my father in his final days. As you've heard me say many times, I feel that being a Liberal means we need to respect people's freedoms and choices while ensuring that as a society we protect our most vulnerable," he said in a message to his MPs and candidates on Friday.

The NDP called on Ottawa to consult widely on new legislation, in a non-partisan fashion.

"We are calling on the federal government to abide by this decision and to take immediate steps to begin a constructive national conversation on medically assisted suicide," NDP MP Françoise Boivin said on Friday.