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Doctor-assisted suicide: What are Parliament's next steps?

02/06/2015 03:40 EST | Updated 04/08/2015 05:59 EDT
The Supreme Court has given the federal and provincial governments 12 months to amend legislation that bans doctors from assisting patients who have chosen to die.

If there is no legislation passed in the next year, the court's ruling will strike down the existing law.

So, what are the federal government's options?

It could choose to work with Conservative MP Steven Fletcher on his private member's bill, which proposes to make legal physician-assisted death.

Fletcher said the Supreme Court's decision used "extraordinarily similar wording" to his already introduced backbench bill, which was also introduced in the Senate before Christmas. Fletcher became a quadriplegic after hitting a moose with his car in 1996.

"That bill could be used as a foundation for parliamentarians going forward," he said. "The other advantage of it going through Parliament is there are a lot of stakeholders in this area and I am quite happy to have a bill go to committee and be questioned and gone through the grinder to ensure that we have the best possible outcome."

He added that he believes there should be a provision in the law to prevent abuse.

"I don't want people, because they have a bad hair day, to get their car mechanic to take them down," he said. "We want to make sure that we move forward quickly but thoughtfully, and the Supreme Court has really given us a clear path."

But with a federal election coming sometime this year, Fletcher said it's unclear if his bill would be given priority before government is dissolved.

"I guess it depends on if people want this to be an election issue or not," he said. "If the desire is for this not to be an election issue, it will need to be dealt with in this session of Parliament."

The government could also chose to start from scratch to craft legislation to respond to the ruling.

If the government does not change the law within 12 months, the court's exemption for physicians will stand. Until the 12-month period is up, the ban on assisted suicide remains law. 

Minister of Justice and Attorney General Peter MacKay issued a statement in response to the ruling:​​ "This is a sensitive issue for many Canadians, with deeply held beliefs on both sides. We will study the decision and ensure all perspectives on this difficult issue are heard.”

Ruling details assisted suicide limits

The Supreme Court ruled that assisted suicide would only be exempt if it involved a physician — and only in specific cases involving a competent adult. But André Schutten, legal counsel for the Association for Reformed Political Action, said he's worried the limits imposed will eventually be pushed.

"If it's a constitutional right for an adult, why wouldn't it be a constitutional right for a child? Or if it's a constitutional right for an adult who can give consent, why would you deprive a severely suffering adult who's not able to give consent?" he said.

Schutten said he'd like Parliament to impose strict limits, including requiring judicial review at the Superior Court level for requests for assisted suicide, and video recordings through every stage of the process to confirm there was full consent and no hesitation or doubt on the part of the requester.

"I think the court has … signalled Parliament, you can set up a restrictive regime with very strict safeguards. I think the language of the judgment contemplates a robust, very strict, complex regime," he said.

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