Federal government wants more time to make changes to assisted suicide law

18 February 2020

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

The federal government wants four more months to change Canada’s assisted suicide rules to comply with a Quebec court decision that came down in September that said the existing regulations are too restrictive.

In a joint statement released by Justice Minister David Lametti and Health Minister Patty Hajdu late in the afternoon of Feb. 17, the ministers said a four-month extension would allow the government to better address the “complex and deeply personal issue.”

“We recognize that medical assistance in dying is a complex and deeply personal issue. The high level of engagement during the January 2020 online public consultations—which received nearly 300,000 responses—is a strong demonstration of the importance of this issue for Canadians,” the statement from the ministers said, adding that “we remain committed to responding to the Court’s ruling as quickly as possible.”

David Lametti

Up until the extension request, Lametti had indicated that he wanted to present proposals for changes to the law in the House of Commons by mid-February as the Quebec court ruling set a deadline for changes of March 11, 2020. But Lametti also always left the door open for the federal government to seek an extension to make changes to what is known as MAiD (medical assistance in dying).

“Without this extension, the ‘reasonable foreseeability of natural death’ criterion from the federal law will no longer be applicable in the province of Quebec come March 12, but will remain in effect in other provinces and territories.

“Following the successful completion of the government’s consultations on this important matter, we fully intend to introduce new medical assistance in dying legislation in the near future. An extension would give Parliament time to consider and enact proposed amendments,” the ministers’ statement said.

Opponents of legally-sanctioned medical suicide in Canada have been very critical of the way the federal government has handled its response to the Quebec Superior Court ruling known as the Truchon ruling. They  argue that the federal government should have appealed the ruling and they have criticized the two-week online survey of Canadians in January on the issue as being insufficient for such an important issue.

Critics have also argued that the questions in the online survey were skewered towards support for expanding legal euthanasia in Canada.

In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dated Jan. 31, four days after the deadline for the federal government’s online survey, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) president Richard Gagnon reiterated the Catholic Church’s opposition to government-sanctioned suicide while slamming the idea that a survey is the way to address “grave moral questions.”

“It is inappropriate and superficial to use a survey to address grave moral questions concerning life and death,” said Gagnon, the Archbishop of Winnipeg. “Two weeks is entirely insufficient to study the question as well as to learn from the sobering lessons in other jurisdictions where euthanasia/assisted suicide has been practised with fewer restrictions.”

Ray Pennings

One critic of the haste in which the federal government was moving to make changes to the MAiD system, Ray Pennings, vice-president of the faith-based think tank Cardus, is happy to see that an extension for the timeline.

But Pennings said that extension must be put to good use and issues that have not been part of the discussion to this point are addressed.

“I welcome that,” Pennings said of the timeline extension. “But the time is only meaningful if it is used well. This is a significant policy change being driven by court decisions. I welcome the opportunity for more discussion.”

He said the debate over the possible expansion of the MAiD system has been focused on opening up the option of an assisted suicide to more people, but other important issues are not being addressed that should be part of the discussion as well.

“If MAiD is legal, how are we making sure that there are proper safeguards in place, how do we make sure that people don’t feel pressured to take part,” he said.

Pennings said issues, such as conscience rights for health-care workers who are opposed to medically-induced suicide and whether or not MAiD is going to be a part of the health care system, should also be examined closely.

While the federal government is now asking for more time to make changes to MAiD, the Quebec government has made it clear that its rules regarding legal assisted suicide will be changed by March 11 as the Truchon ruling set as a deadline.

However, the Quebec government has backed off making changes surrounding the controversial issue of allowing people with mental-illnesses to seek an assisted suicide pending further consultation on that issue.