OTTAWA — The Conservative government may ask the Supreme Court for an extension to comply with its physician-assisted suicide ruling – if it wins the next election, The Huffington Post Canada has learned.
The country’s top court unanimously ruled earlier this month that clearly consenting adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering have the right to have a doctor help them die. The Supreme Court suspended its decision for 12 months, giving Parliament a year to adopt new rules for physician-assisted suicide. So far, however, the government has shown no interest in acting quickly.
Several Conservative MPs said this week that they believe the government should ask the court for an extension.
“[I]t would behoove us to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada for an extension so we can do it right. This is not something that should be rushed,” Manitoba Tory MP Joy Smith told the Commons on Tuesday.
Ontario MP Harold Albrecht suggested that MPs should “take the time in an election year to study it more fully with a bit of an extension.”
There are only 12 weeks left before the House of Commons breaks for the summer and MPs hit the campaign trail for the Oct. 19 election.
Manitoba MP Steven Fletcher said he is concerned about the condensed time frame that the election creates.
“Nothing is really going to happen until after the election on Oct. 20, and it will take a couple of weeks for the government to get organized, so we are looking at November. We really are talking about a couple of months [to the court deadline],” he said Tuesday.
“I wonder if Parliament should not recommend to the Supreme Court an extension of the 12-month timeline.”
Bob Dechert, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, said the government wants lots of time for broad consultations.
The Liberals introduced a motion Tuesday calling for a special committee to be struck to consult with Canadians and experts on the issue, reporting back with its recommendations by the end of July.
The Conservatives defeated the motion to 146 to 132.
Dechert said he didn’t think the government should be “rushed into doing something that is inappropriate and not take the time to properly and carefully consider it and hear all opinions.
“There are opportunities for the government to ask the court for an extension. Given the circumstances of the issue and this particular year, I think the court would very likely consider those arguments,” Dechert said.
The Liberals, however, argued the delay would be inhumane for people living in intolerable pain.
“We cannot ask them to hold off and wait,” said Grit MP Hedy Fry, a B.C. physician.
Dechert later clarified that he was speaking on his own behalf, as a lawyer, and not the government’s behalf. He said the government intends to introduce legislation within the Supreme Court’s time 1 year time-frame.
Tory sources tell the Huffington Post Canada, however, that it’s very likely a re-elected Conservative government would ask the top court for an extension.
The Supreme Court has been asked at least twice to keep laws the justices had declared invalid on the books for a little while longer. Late last year, the court gave the Alberta government a six-month extension to update its laws on the protection of personal information. In 1992, the court granted the Manitoba government a three-month extension to update its language laws.
Conservative MP Rob Anders told reporters Wednesday that he understands why the Conservatives would not want to rush legislation dealing with physician-assisted suicide before the election campaign.
“It’s a very touchy issue, obviously,” he said. “I tend to think that the party and most of its base would probably be opposed to ending life before natural death.”
Several social conservatives, such as Ontario MP Stephen Woodworth and Saskatchewan’s Maurice Vellacott, have urged the government to invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the court’s decision.
Many Conservatives, such as Alberta MP Leon Benoit who attacked the Supreme Court as a “runaway court” and “lawless” this week, believe the justices overstepped their bounds and did not take Parliament’s record on doctor-assisted suicide into consideration.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay has said invoking the notwithstanding clause would be like a “nuclear bomb,” but the Prime Minister has yet to reject the possibility in the Commons.
MP Brad Trost, a social conservative, told The Huffington Post that many of his backbench colleagues are split on the issue, as, he suspects, many Canadians are.
“I think most of [us] are pretty happy to wait and take our time on this one. So what if it takes 14, or 15 or 16 months and there is three or four months of ambiguity? ” he said.
But Fletcher, who has proposed legislation allowing for physician-assisted death, said he thinks that would be irresponsible.
“There needs to be some sort of penalty in the Criminal Code to prevent abuse,” he told HuffPost.
All the government has to do, Fletcher said, is introduce a bill that says “physician-assisted death can occur in Canada if a competent adult makes the request…. That is all it has to say.”
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