Steven Fletcher, the Conservative MP from Winnipeg, has done Canada a service. In March, he introduced two private member's bills to allow physician-assisted suicide. His bills rekindled the embers of a national debate. If they ever reach the Commons for a vote, attention will again be focused on an issue that refuses to go away.
Mr. Fletcher has a personal authenticity on the subject, not that he wishes assisted suicide for himself. He knows suffering, having become a quadriplegic after a terrible accident. Bravely, he ran for Parliament and was elected. Bravely, he now presents these bills, knowing that they will not find favour at the highest reaches of his party, nor with a majority of his caucus colleagues.
The first bill would define how consent by individuals would be given to assisted suicide and exculpate physicians for their assistance. The second would create a commission on physician-assisted death. It would provide information to the general public and to individuals and families wishing to pursue physician-assisted death.
Canada has been around the issue of physician-assisted suicide many times in the past two decades. There have been legislative initiatives and there have been court cases (including at the Supreme Court of Canada), but we have never arrived at a consensus to allow the practice, as some European countries have done.
Quebec's recent legislative initiative came closest to success. A bill introduced by the Parti Québécois government would have allowed physician-assisted suicide with a range of appropriate safeguards and checks involving patients, physicians and families.
The PQ lost the election, but the bill had garnered widespread political support. It is entirely possible that the new Liberal government might reintroduce the bill, or something close to it. With a legislative majority and obvious support from at least the PQ (and perhaps the other two parties), the Quebec Liberals could take the Canadian legislative lead. (The federal Liberals endorsed decriminalization of physician-assisted suicide at their last convention, but it's too soon to tell whether the party will include the idea in its election platform.)
Doctors' associations appear split on assisted suicide, judging from polling and resolutions debated and voted upon in general assemblies of physicians. There certainly is no consensus among the medical professions. It's not an easy moral and professional question for many doctors, who understandably wish the issue would just go away. But it won't.
As Canada's population ages, more people will be stricken with incurable diseases, from which will flow questions about what is called the "right to die." There is no such "right" in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but there is a "right" to "security of the person," which, under a certain construction, could be used to make assisted suicide a legal right.
We shall see whether the Supreme Court, which once turned down assisted suicide in the Rodriguez case, is prepared to reconsider. A case from British Columbia (Carter et al v. Canada) is headed to a Supreme Court with different judges in place and more time to have taken stock of public attitudes.
As with the legalization of marijuana, assisted suicide is slowly gaining ground in the United States, where several states have policies. Legal challenges to permit the practice are moving forward in other states.
A few other countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, have laws governing euthanasia or assisted suicide – laws that have often been cited by those pressing for change in Canada. It should be noted that the number of people using these laws is a tiny fraction of the total deaths each year. Assisted suicides have been few in number. The notion that there are massive numbers of people choosing to use this avenue is misguided.
With all appropriate safeguards in place, as they are in jurisdictions where the practice is legal, assisted suicide is a humane addition to individual rights and the dignity of the person. Is it controversial? Yes. Should it be debated again? Yes. It cannot be ignored.