REALity – Volume XXXIV Issue No. 3 March 2015

The trendy Supreme Court of Canada, as is its custom, has picked up and imposed on us another current fad – assisted suicide.

This same issue was raised in Parliament on nine occasions since 1993, and has been the subject of six separate votes – all of which upheld the law against assisted suicide.  These decisions were made with the support of all the political parties.  But the Supreme Court of Canada did not seem at all concerned about the opinion of a democratically elected Parliament, which supposedly represents the views of the population. 

According to the assisted suicide decision, all that is required to permit it, is that the person consent to it, providing he/she has a “grievous and irremediable medical condition including illness, disease and disability”. What definition could be broader than that?

The opinion by the Supreme Court of Canada is particularly disingenuous when it declares that, “Nothing in this declaration would compel physicians to provide assistance in dying.” How long will it take before future decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada modify this statement?  Where is the Court’s concern about the rights of other medical personnel, such as those of nurses, hospital staff and those working in the fields of psychology and counselling?  What about the rights of hospital chaplains, or the rights of paramedics responding to an attempted suicide? What about teachers, priests and pastors – will they be reprimanded or disciplined if they counsel someone wanting to end their life?  Clearly, the Court has not thought through the implications of its decision.

The Court struck down the prohibition of physician-assisted suicide (S.241) in the Criminal Code on the grounds that the provision was “overbroad”, i.e. too wide in that it failed to provide for the wish to die by a competent adult who has a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including disease and disability. The patient doesn’t even have to be terminally ill.  How more overbroad and far-reaching was this definition by a hypocritical Supreme Court?  Does the expression “irremediable medical condition” include assisted suicide for those with chronic bronchitis or those suffering every day pain from chronic arthritis?  Would it apply also to the demoralized, depressed and bewildered, who will die before their time because their distressing symptoms have not been medically dealt with?  Why does society wage such a war against suicide for some, but encourage death as a legitimate choice for others who are experiencing difficulties?

The Supreme Court of Canada has left Canadians with the most permissible assisted suicide law in the world. It undermines the right to life of many in Canada with severe disabilities, illnesses or advanced age, who will be encouraged or feel obliged to end their lives for the convenience of others, not themselves.  In effect, a higher value than life itself – that is, the immediate right to death, has been found by the court.  Once the absolute ban on killing others has been removed from the law, those with disabilities as a class of people, will be provided with less protection and benefit of the law, in regard to the homicide provisions of the Criminal Code, than able-bodied Canadians, because the absolute value, dignity and protection of the disabled, as human beings, has been eroded.

Physician-assisted suicide is bad medicine, as the sick don’t get more choices for their care, only fewer. It is a cheap and easy option – a simple, irrevocable, one size fits all remedy that deprives the patient of his/her doctor’s professional skills, which differ with each patient and the illness.

What Will Happen Now?

It is certain that the Conservative Government will not invoke the Notwithstanding Clause (S.33 of the Charter), which permits a government to overturn a ruling of the Court for a five-year period.  If the Conservative Government were to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause over assisted suicide, this would, to the media, be like throwing red meat to a hungry dog.  The media would relish the opportunity to attack the Conservative Government during the forthcoming election campaign, thoroughly enjoying attacking it, supposedly as dictatorial, undemocratic, etc.  The mainstream media have been desperately looking for an issue on which to pin Mr. Harper to the wall, but it is unlikely that Mr. Harper will give the media this opportunity by invoking the Notwithstanding Clause.

Twelve Months to Regulate Assisted Suicide

The Supreme Court has given the government twelve months in which to develop a regulatory procedure to carry out assisted suicide within the paramaters set by the Court. The difficulty is that this is a federal election year with the election, presumably, to take place on October 19, 2015.  Parliament, however, recesses in the middle of June (which is just four months from the date the decision was handed down) and will not resume sitting until after the election, probably near the middle of November.  Parliament will then recess again for Christmas, in the middle of December, and not return until near the end of January, 2016.  This means that there are only about 5 Parliamentary months in which the Government has an opportunity to deal with the Court’s decision.

The Minister of Justice, Peter MacKay, has stated that he intends to consult widely on this issue before putting forward any regulatory procedures. This cannot be done within the five month period available.  It is likely, therefore, that Mr. MacKay will request an extension of time from the Court because of the extenuating circumstances of the election.

The key then is who will form the government after the October 19th federal election?  If it is the Conservatives, then there is some hope that this dangerous decision on assisted suicide can be narrowed so as to include the conscience rights of all medical personnel and narrow down the circumstances in which assisted suicide may take place, etc.

If the NDP or the Liberals form the next Government, all bets are off.   One cannot predict what they will do about the assisted suicide decision.