For the past months the House of Commons and the Senate have debated an incredibly difficult, sensitive and emotional issue – medical assistance in dying. A few years ago I visited a dear friend of many decades, in the hospital. His body was literally breaking down from a long terminal illness, creating excruciating pain that could only partly be managed by confusion-inducing drugs. After enduring this for weeks he eventually refused to accept food or water, the only legal way to shorten his marathon of suffering. After six days of heightened physical and mental anguish he passed away. Many Canadians have similar stories to tell.
On February 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Carter v. Canada that the law making it illegal to help someone end their own life in any circumstance violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, and that a competent adult with enduring, intolerable suffering who clearly chooses to end their life should have access to help from a doctor. The Court gave government until June 6th to respond.
The issue Canadians have therefore been grappling with is not IF Canadians should have the right to ask a doctor for help, but HOW to make it available. Bill C-14 is our government’s response.
Residents of Vancouver Quadra live near UBC campus complexes of medical research, training and care, so this new legislation may be of interest, as it is for many Canadians. Some believe the government’s approach is too strict – by limiting access to medical aid to adults with incurable physical illness, disease or disability, and whose death is reasonably foreseeable. Others worry Bill C-14 is too loose and will not adequately protect the vulnerable from abuse.
Bill C-14 received Royal Assent after passing a final vote in the Senate on Friday June 17, 2016. The government’s legislation maintains an essential balance between personal autonomy for those seeking medical assisted dying while protecting the vulnerable and respecting the personal beliefs of health care providers. The Canadian Medical Association, which has strongly supported C-14, said it was “pleased that historic federal legislation on medical aid in dying is now in place.”
I voted in favour of the legislation because in my view it makes sense to be cautious: legalized medical assistance in dying represents a sea change in the Canadian landscape of social policy and individual rights. Bill C-14 is an important first step in response to Carter. The government has committed to appoint an expert panel for further study and consultations over the coming years, to ensure the right framework, balancing access and protections, is available to all Canadians.