New law to fill legal void from Supreme Court decision to overturn the criminalization of the practice
Justin Trudeau, the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada and leader of the Liberal Party who assumed office on November 4, 2015, has made numerous changes in Canada’s governing bodies. His cabinet consists of an equal number of men and women, 15 of each, with nearly all of them being under the age of 50. Among these members, there are several practicing Sikhs, aboriginals and former refugees. The idea, according to Trudeau, was to have a cabinet of Canada that “looks like Canada.”
His government, on Thursday April 14, introduced legislation that would legalize physician assisted suicide for Canadians with a “serious and incurable illness” that has subsequently brought them “enduring physical or psychological suffering.”
According to the Health Law Institute of Dalhousie University’s page entitled “Endof-Life Law & Policy in Canada,” assisted suicide was a criminal offense under s. 241 of Canada’s Criminal Code. Many hope that the bill will help fill a “legal void” left from when the Supreme Court of Canada overturned s. 241’s ban on assisted suicide.
According to this institute, in June 15, 2012, Justice Lynn Smith struck down the prohibition for violating sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
At the time, Stephen Harper’s (former Prime Minister and head of the Conservative Party) government appealed Justice Smith’s decision and successfully overturned it via the British Columbia Court of Appeal in 2013. The Supreme Court of Canada then heard the appeal in October 2014 and released a decision on February 6, 2015, declaring unanimously that “The Court” found that the prohibition of assisted suicide violated section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and declared the code to be invalid. This declaration was then, temporarily, made invalid for 12 months in order to provide the federal, provincial and territorial governments time to revise or craft new laws in response to their decision.
However, after the Liberal Party seized control in November, they voted in December of 2015 to extend the invalid period for an additional six months. As a result, by June 6, 2016, assisted suicide will be legal for a “competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”
The current proposed bill would limit physician-assisted suicides to citizens and residents who participate in the national health care system in order to prevent, according to the New York Times, “a surge in medical tourism among the dying from other countries.”
If the bill is passed, Canada will join a number of countries that permit some form of assisted suicide – notably Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. In the U.S. it is only legal in Oregon and Vermont. Under the law, medication provided by doctors will be legally provided, and family members and friends will be allowed to assist with their death, along with social workers and pharmacists. This motion is expected to pass due to the Liberal Party’s overwhelming majority in the House of Commons.
A physician must decide that “natural death has become reasonably foreseeable, taking into account all of [a patient’s] medical circumstances.” Two independent physicians must agree and the patient will then have to wait 15 days before moving to end their life in a typical situation. Doctors with moral disagreements will not be required, according to the law, to help people die; however, they must refer patients to another physician if they have an objection in participating.
To some, the bill is more restrictive than originally sought. It does not have provisions for minors, nor for individuals in the early stages of dementia that would permit them to request assisted death while they are still cognizant. Several members of the Liberal party have had religious objections to the bill and will not support it. Meanwhile, Michael Cooper – a member of Conservative Parliament – has stated that he was pleased with the narrower system of action that the bill would legally permit and felt the bill served its purpose.
Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto, said in an interview on Thursday with the New York Times that “it changes our approach to human life; it changes our approach to human society.” He was “deeply troubled” by the pressure that the legislation could have on individuals who morally oppose assisted suicide.