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opinion

David McLaughlin has been a chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord, and former finance minister Jim Flaherty.

Avoiding political assisted suicide seems to be the only common aspect of Parliament's shambolic response thus far to the unanimous Supreme Court ruling this month that physician-assisted suicide was not criminal and should be available to Canadians with "a grievous and irremediable medical condition."

Given twelve months by the court to come up with a law enabling this new right, confusion and cacophony has been the most evident parliamentary order of the day.

Conservatives are hedging, torn in this election year between obeying the court or their convictions. For some, assisted suicide is immoral, for others, judicial activism should not be rewarded.

The NDP and the Liberals have embraced the court's decision and timetable. No ambiguity shades their positions.

Take a memo: Parliament is divided. But, so too is the country. And in all their reflexive partisan instincts each of the parties is actually performing a representative function for myriad views in the hinterland.

The question is, can they keep it up? Because doing so would serve the country's social and democratic interests.

Fundamentally, assisted suicide is a moral issue, not a political or legal one. The most apolitical of Canadians can, and do, have totally opposing and strongly held views.

But you cannot legislate morality. It is in our laws and behaviour that a free society gives expression to its morality. Legislating what is allowed or not allowed in law – making something legal or illegal – is the closest Parliament can and should come.

And now, the country's top law-ruling authority has told the country's top law-making body to venture into exactly these turbulent waters, and do so with alacrity.

Parliament is awash with values debates these days. Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism Act, pits security of the state against individual freedoms.

Now, assisted suicide will surely open another front in the values war, mixing religion, life, death, and choice into a pernicious political brew.

There is tricky political terrain for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to navigate on assisted suicide. Crying judicial activism to stave off or circumscribe the Supreme Court's decision may be his real desire based on past statements, but brushes with the court in the past have left him more bruised than it. To voters, it would look like a government power-grab and a dangerous diminishing of judicial independence. Not the best positioning eight months before a general election.

But as the court has played its role in setting forth this new right for Canadians, Parliament must now play its role in authorizing that right, in law.

Parliament, led by the government, must seek to be both progressive and conservative. Progressive in advancing towards the Supreme Court's decision but conservative in framing it in a way that secures the broadest support across Canadian society in how it is done.

Being progressive conservative is likely not Mr. Harper's natural instinct, but when it comes to the legitimately tangled emotions and convictions of Canadians on this matter, it probably is the country's.

First, it means a political airing of the issue to take the temperature of the country. A parliamentary committee to draft a bill is apparently not in the cards but a draft government bill with committee hearings could do just as well.

Second, it means setting options for Canadians to consider in a draft bill or white paper on how far and in what fashion we wish to implement this new obligation. There are difficult issues of medical ethics to contemplate along with the practical medical rules needed to give it effect.

What would the actual process of medically-assisted suicide look like? What conditions of health or disease would have to be present? Who would be licensed or obligated to perform a new lawful procedure and where? At what age would this apply?

These are no small matters. If the constitutionality of assisted suicide is no longer in doubt, under what circumstances, procedures, and mechanisms is.

A judicious approach would serve Canadians' interests best. One that is progressive conservative may be just what the judges' ordered.