Political parties should be talking about assisted suicide

As readers will recall, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Canada's absolute prohibition on physician assisted suicide was unconstitutional and gave Parliament one year to establish a new regime.

Come February, assisted suicide will be legal in Canada. As readers will recall, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Canada’s absolute prohibition on physician assisted suicide was unconstitutional and gave Parliament one year to establish a new regime.

But so far-despite our being in the middle of an election-we have very little idea of what politicians intend to do about it, at least in any concrete terms.

The Conservatives have been most opaque calling it a “sensitive issue” with “deeply held beliefs on both sides” and promising further “study”. The Liberals and NDP have at least acknowledged their intention to respect the court’s decision but have declined to provide further details beyond a promise of consultation with experts, parliament and the public.

These attempts to punt this political football when there is a deadline looming are cowardly and ought to be unacceptable to Canadians.

There is a reason that the court gave the politicians time before its ruling came into effect. If Parliament fails to act we will soon have a situation somewhat like we have on abortion where the court’s decision essentially functions as the new law.

But there are differences between the two situations. Canada’s abortion law was struck down in its entirety. Whether you think that is the way it should be or you think that the lack of any law on the subject is an abomination, we can at least agree that the (lack of a) law is clear and straightforward to implement for abortion providers, police, prosecutors and lower court judges.

Physician assisted suicide is much more complex because the law isn’t gone in its entirety. It will still remain illegal to assist with a suicide in many circumstances. The court simply “read down” the law—meaning it outlined some limited circumstances where it would be legal to assist and sent the issue back to Parliament to sort out the details.

Doctors and the authorities could probably muddle through without further action from legislators but a clearer codified line with established procedures and safeguards would be of assistance to everyone. Criminal law is a subject that screams out for clarity.

Canadians should expect more from their politicians.

These are, after all, political parties that can deliver fully costed political platforms that purport to predict revenues based on models of economic growth. They are confident enough to make bold claims about reducing carbon dioxide emissions citing mechanisms, quantities and time frames.

But somehow providing straightforward answers on sticky moral issues is beyond their capacity.

Normally politicians have their minds made up and are eager to tell us what they think. But suddenly they have nothing to say and want to hear what the public thinks. If it wasn’t such an obviously cynical attempt to avoid offending anyone one almost feels like they’ve finally embraced the concept of participatory democracy.

Certainly there is a role for physicians and ethicists in sorting out various details and procedures, but all of us are capable of forming a reasoned opinion on assisted dying. Should assistance be offered for a “competent adult who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and repeatedly asks for assistance to die.” as pollster Ipsos asked Canadians last fall? Or should the line be drawn elsewhere? Or is this an issue where Parliament should finally use the notwithstanding clause and override the court?

These questions and others are well within the competence of our politicians to answer right now.

In some sense maybe it is a good thing that this issue is not discussed in the context of an election. Politicians have hardly demonstrated themselves to be capable of acting like adults during campaigns. One can easily imagine how this discussion which deserves sensitive, calm, sober and rational debate could devolve into name calling and reductionist sloganeering.

But when it is a certainty that the next parliament will have to deal with the issue—even if dealing with it means doing nothing and letting the court fill the gap—it would be nice to know where everyone stands.

Many of us will someday either personally find ourselves in a position where we will either avail ourselves of the option of assisted dying or alternatively wish it was available. It is certainly a subject worthy of some debate during this campaign.

“We’ll figure out where we stand after the election” is hardly an answer that voters should tolerate. We certainly wouldn’t tolerate it on most other issues.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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