Skip to main content

Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who has drafted private member's bills related to assisted suicide, in the foyer of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on Oct. 15, 2014.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Parliament of Canada should pass a law that makes physician-assisted suicide legal. Twenty years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada rightly said that this was a matter for the legislature to deal with. The court should say so again in the case of Carter v. Canada, which is now being argued.

Nothing has changed in the past two decades – with the conspicuous exception that the National Assembly of Quebec passed just such a law last June, permitting doctors to assist a patient in committing suicide. That has created an anomaly. Quebec justified its statute as a health-care law in accord with the federal-provincial distribution of legislative powers: "An act respecting end-of-life care."

That left, fully intact, the "counselling or aiding suicide" offence in the Criminal Code of Canada, and federal law prevails over provincial law if there is a conflict. This constitutional paradox needs to be resolved, now that Quebec has broken the ice.

It's true that Canadian politicians have been reluctant to deal with this issue. Nonetheless, public opinion surveys show that the majority of Canadians, not only the majority of Quebeckers, favour the legalization of assisted suicide.

The Quebec law and its equivalents in five American states now provide models for Canada to follow, or vary upon, as Parliament may see fit.

The courts, on the other hand, are not equipped to draft statutes, or to consider the best ways of providing safeguards against duress, or coaxing by greedy relatives, or decisions made in the course of mental illness. These are questions for wide-open debate, not for the technical abstractions of judicial rules, or the artificial balancing of rights by the courts.

If federal politicians continue to drag their feet on this issue, then the public needs to try harder to express their views in elections.