It's a subject that most politicians want to avoid. Conservative MP Steven Fletcher is introducing a bill on legalizing assisted suicide. Is there a chance that MPs will stop squirming about it, take on the debate, and decide?
History suggests it's an issue than makes MPs from all parties, on all sides of the debate, want to run and hide. But perhaps, just perhaps, things have changed. The courts are taking a second look, and some think they might strike down the current law. Polls show most people favour some doctor-assisted suicide in some circumstances.
It's still an issue that most politicians don't want to address. Every party has people on all sides. No matter what polls say, there are people in every riding with earnest, deeply-held beliefs who are adamantly opposed. And it's uncomfortable. "Nobody likes talking about end-of-life issues," Mr. Fletcher said.
One reason Mr. Fletcher is introducing the bill is that he's had to stare at those issues. At 23, a car accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. He didn't know if he would live in an institution for the rest of his life. "Everything I held dear was taken from me, except for my family," he said. He was intubated 24 hours a day for months, unable to speak. "There was no sleep and no pain medication – if you're drowning, no pain medication is going to help you with that."
"It's amazing the suffering the human body can endure," he said.
"If I was at the end of my life, and I was told this was what's going to happen, yeah, I would want to have the option of assisted suicide."
His is a backbencher's private bill, so it might never get to a vote. But he spent five years as a minister of state, till last year, and said he could never have introduced such a bill then because it would have required full government backing: "No chance," he said.
Mr. Fletcher's bill, to be introduced in the Commons on Thursday, will include safeguards that required help from a professional, for a competent, informed adult who wants to die, and, he said, it deals with leaving individuals who might have an interest in the death out of the equation.
He's also introducing a second bill to create a commission to study and track the assisted suicide, to create transparency. It happens now, Mr. Fletcher said, from a request to increase morphine in hospital to seniors starving themselves to death in long-term care facilities.
Mr. Fletcher said he respects the views of people who are opposed. But he believes MPs have to address it, even it is a tough issue. The Supreme Court is reviewing the issue again. Mr. Fletcher is betting they will strike down the section of the Criminal Code that bars assisted suicide, forcing MPs to figure out a new legal framework. Mr. Fletcher thinks legislators should be taking the lead. "Parliament should be the place that these discussions take place," he said.
Those discussions have taken place before, but they didn't really come to fruition. Usually they were steered off before a vote. The occasional MP has stirred the pot.
There was former New Democrat MP Svend Robinson, who introduced a bill in 1992, and championed the cause of Sue Rodriguez, the Victoria woman with ALS who fought for her right to have assistance to die. She lost in the Supreme Court, but she was assisted to die by an unnamed doctor, with Mr. Robinson present. There was a flurry of political activity, and talk of changing the law, but it didn't happen. The late Bloc MP Francine Lalonde's bill almost came to a vote in 2005, but elections cut it off. There was a vote on another backbencher's proposal in 2010, but it was a short, terse bill without many safeguards, and was defeated.
Looking back years later, Mr. Robinson thinks public attitudes have changed dramatically, but politicians are still fretful. "It's still an issue that politicians of all stripes are reluctant to take on," he said over the phone from South Africa, where he travelled for work. He said he's hopeful that the Supreme Court will reverse its previous decision.
There's also a sign that politicians are getting nudged in other ways. The PQ government in Quebec had introduced a bill to legalize assisted suicide – which did not pass before the current election – which would have been at odds with the federal Criminal Code. Delegates to the federal Liberal convention, held in Montreal in February, passed a resolution favouring it – even if leader Justin Trudeau stayed silent on his plans.
And Mr. Fletcher is going to prod them again, insisting that for or against, MPs must not dodge: "Obviously it's a tough issue," he said. "But it's a tough world."
Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief politics writer in Ottawa.