A Toronto doctor who once likened assisted dying to the Holocaust is no longer in charge of a federally mandated process to determine whether Canadians should be able to make advance requests for medical help to end their lives.
Harvey Schipper has stepped aside as chair of a working group of experts who will examine the issue, although he will continue as an active member of the group.
"While I do believe I would have served in the role of chair impartially, the work of this expert panel is far too important to be burdened with unnecessary distractions," Schipper said in a statement released by the Council of Canadian Academies.
The council's appointment of Schipper as chair late last month had raised doubts about the impartiality of the process and the seriousness of the federal government's commitment to consider expanding its restrictive law on assisted dying.
Advance requests was one of three major issues left unresolved last year when the government passed legislation that restricted medical assistance in dying to those who are already near death.
As part of the legislation, the government promised to conduct independent reviews to determine whether the legislation should eventually be expanded to include advance requests, mature minors and those suffering strictly from mental illnesses.
In December, the government engaged the Council of Canadian Academies to conduct the reviews of the three issues and report back to Parliament by late 2018.
The council last month created a 43-member expert panel on assisted dying, chaired by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps, and subdivided it into working groups on the three outstanding issues.
Schipper, a University of Toronto professor of medicine, was put in charge of the advance request working group despite having been a strident opponent of assisted dying.
In a June 2014 column published in the Globe and Mail, he opined that civilized society always runs into trouble when it makes exceptions to the moral imperative that life is sacred. He then compared arguments used to justify assisted dying with those advanced by Nazi Germany to justify the Holocaust.
"Similar arguments about relieving suffering were used by the Nazis to justify first exterminating the weakened and disabled, then the mentally ill and then non-Aryans on the regime's hell-bent descent into depravity," he wrote.
"In order to execute the policy, a cohort of licensed killers was created. This, in a society once considered the world's most sophisticated and cultured."
He concluded that "assisted suicide is not a legal matter. It's a moral one and we can't legislate morality."
Shanaaz Gokool of Dying with Dignity Canada, called Schipper's departure as chair of the working group a "promising development."
"Having Dr. Schipper continue on as chair would have sent a disturbing message and it would have tainted the working group's findings in the eyes of Canadians," she said.
That said, Gokool expressed disappointment that Schipper has still not disavowed his "inflammatory past statements" and called on him to clarify his position. She also called on the council to appoint a new chair "who has at least been publicly neutral on the issue of assisted dying."
"Canadians need to know that their rights and choices will be considered fairly and without prejudice," she said.
Polls suggest the vast majority of Canadians support the notion that anyone diagnosed with competence-eroding conditions like dementia should have the right to make an advance request for an assisted death while they are still mentally competent to do so, Gokool noted.
Council president Eric Meslin said in the statement that the council's expert panels are "committed to looking objectively at the evidence" and that the same commitment to objectivity was applied to the selection of panel members and working group chairs for the assisted dying review.
He expressed confidence that Schipper would have been impartial as chair and added: "I am fully confident that Dr. Schipper will continue to bring objectivity and rigour to his role as a member of the working group."
The federal government has specifically instructed the council not to make recommendations on the three outstanding issues but to simply summarize its findings.