Brian Bird is an assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia.
For the second time in just four years, Parliament is poised to expand the conditions by which it is lawful for doctors in Canada to end the lives of their patients. The federal government recently tabled legislation that would expand assisted death to persons who are not close to death but are intolerably suffering from serious and incurable physical illnesses. Persons suffering solely from mental illness would remain ineligible for assisted death under the proposed legislation, but it remains to be seen if that line will hold.
This legislation, Bill C-7, would build on Canada’s existing assisted death law enacted in 2016; that law currently requires that death be “reasonably foreseeable” before a patient’s life is ended. Persons whose deaths are not near, but who might be suffering terribly, are ineligible for assisted death.
But last year, a court in Quebec determined that the foreseeability of death requirement violates the Charter. More specifically, the requirement discriminates against disabled persons who are far from death and also violates their right to life, liberty, and security of the person.
In 2016, all federal parties allowed their caucuses to vote freely on assisted death. But on Bill C-7, only the leader of the Conservatives, Erin O’Toole, has said that his caucus would be able to vote freely and vote their conscience. The other party leaders have not yet indicated where they stand on a free vote.
This is not acceptable. If there is any topic that merits freedom from party discipline, this is it.
The question of when it is legal or illegal for persons to end the lives of others is – regardless of partisan allegiance – a matter that touches on the moral fabric of a society. This is not merely a question of public policy; it is a matter of life and death, and a change to the law on this issue, no matter how small, represents a structural change for our society. For good or ill, depending on your viewpoint, the legalization of assisted death has transformed the work of Canadian doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals, who spent their careers operating under the centuries-old belief that the intentional termination of life to stop suffering was antithetical to the medical profession. The same kind of radical change will happen again if Bill C-7 passes. Assisted death would no longer be restricted to the dying.
Indeed, how a society deals with assisted death will deeply and inevitably affect how we attribute value to human life – that of ourselves, family members, friends, colleagues, and others. As assisted death expands, the message that life is an asset that can depreciate, that life has a “best before” date, gains traction. This message is sent regardless of one’s position on assisted death. It should not surprise us that once the door to assisted death is cracked open, as it was in 2016, it is difficult to stop it from being opened further. Bill C-7 confirms, four short years later, that with respect to assisted death, the slippery slope or the path of progress – again, depending on how you view the direction of the slide – is real.
The two sides of the debate agree on little; supporters of assisted death say that it is a human right, ends suffering, and ensures a dignified death, while critics say that palliative care is sorely lacking in Canada, human life is never robbed of its basic dignity, and intentional termination of life is effectively a killing. But in their passion is one common belief: that assisted death is a matter of crucial importance to Canada’s future, that this issue will leave a lasting mark on who we are and what we stand for as a society, and that it represents a turning point for our country.
This shared belief shows how imperative it is that Bill C-7 receives a free vote, across party lines, when it comes up in the House of Commons. When our elected representatives vote on assisted death, they should have the freedom that all of us would legitimately seek if we were in their position – the ability to decide, with their own conscience, a matter of conscience for Canada.
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