07/24/2015 05:52 EDT | Updated 07/24/2016 05:59 EDT

Dying and Vulnerable Canadians Deserve Better



Last week the government announced the membership of the panel that will conduct the public consultation on Physician Assisted Dying. One of the questions they will have to answer are the very real concerns around how to protect vulnerable populations.

People are classed as vulnerable when they are in a position of weakness relative to some other group who can wield power over them.

In protecting the vulnerable it is vital that they include both major categories of vulnerable populations.

The two categories I refer to are, on the one hand, those who are often broadly grouped as Persons with Disabilities and who might be persuaded by others to die against their will, or who may not be able to express their wishes and who may fall victim to others who decide for them. These people are vulnerable to power wielded over them by other individuals. Society must protect them. This has been the function of many laws over many years, and is an important part of the fabric of what we think of as civilized society. The vulnerability of these people is well understood.

The issues of the second group are less often recognized.

The other category of vulnerable people are those who have no disability. These people are the vast majority of the population. These are people who are intelligent, able, capable adults. If they find themselves, for whatever reason, in a position of intolerable and irremediable suffering and they are desperately seeking assistance to die, they are vulnerable to the restrictive powers of Governments who deny them the freedom and possibility of a peaceful release, and instead will make them suffer.

Many years ago Canadian laws recognized that it was no longer illegal for me to end my own life. In Canada today there are few restrictions on gun ownership, and none on the ownership of ropes. I am currently capable of ending my own life if, as an adult, I decide to do so. But if I am suffering and modern medicine cannot help me, should I be made to continue suffering against my will? Should I be restricted to the gun or the rope as my only way out? If I cannot manage to end my life by myself should I be denied any alternatives when such alternatives are available?

Because the history of our Governments, our Churches, and our society up to now has made people like this suffer. It has exploited their vulnerability. They have been a silent vulnerable population. They have been made vulnerable to the powers of governments that have written laws that have ensured they suffer.

They also need protection. And recognizing their vulnerability and enabling their freedom to decide for themselves should also be part of the fabric of a civilized society.

The Supreme Court, in its' ruling earlier this year, put the power of deciding when to die firmly back with the person who is dying. This return of power from the authorities to the individual is at the core of the ruling. I suspect that the government does not like this shift in philosophy.

The response of the government to this ruling has been to set up a panel of 'experts' to broadly consult with the public on this matter before they write and pass laws governing physician assisted dying. It has taken the government five months to come up with the three names of the members of this panel. And they were announced on a Friday afternoon in mid July. This is a sure sign of a government that is doing something it wants no-one to notice.

The membership of the panel is deeply flawed. Two of the members have spoken against physician assisted dying in the trials leading up to the Supreme Court case on this subject. They are eloquent and well respected individuals, but they are not an unbiased sounding board for the views of the people. Dr Chochinov, the panel chair, stated in an affidavit to the Department of Justice in September 2011, that "At this point in time, I would not be prepared to participate in a scheme permitting physician-assisted or intentional death by a medical practitioner".

Professor Frazee has argued in the past, very effectively, for the rights of the disabled. She has argued that persons with disabilities cannot make informed choices about assisted dying because the system discriminates against them. But she has not advocated for the public at large. And she is certainly not an unbiased sounding board who will reliably take the people's message back to the government.

This morning, six days after the panel was announced, Minister of Justice Peter MacKay responded to the widespread criticism that the panel is biased. He now tells us that the panel will only give advice to the government. However he also admits that the Supreme Court decision left him troubled because it deals with 'issues of faith, ..., and concerns for persons with disabilities'.

I could not agree more.

Those people whose faiths and beliefs conclude that life is sacred will never ask for assistance to end their own lives. They have always acted like this and their beliefs are always respected. But we do not all think that way.

Those people who are disabled and therefore who are vulnerable need and deserve protection. We can do that, and we do. We are not perfect at it and we can always do better, but we are pretty good.

It is the other vulnerable group I am concerned about. The normal intelligent non-disabled citizen.

So I ask you all "do you trust this process?"

Do you trust a panel of 'experts' such as has been chosen?

And do you trust a government that approaches an issue this important in a manner that is this furtive, to come up with a set of laws and regulations that will respect your right to decide for yourself when your own life should end.

We all need to take part in these hearings, and we all need to watch how well they do our job. I encourage you to participate in Dying With Dignity Canada's campaign and Voice Your Choice.


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