Ready for the inevitable

Of course, I have no insider’s access and I do not know what is said in cabinet meetings, but I suspect the Harper government already has a team of civil servants drafting a law to allow suffering and dying patients to request the help of a doctor to ease and aid their death.

Of course, I have no insider’s access and I do not know what is said in cabinet meetings, but I suspect the Harper government already has a team of civil servants drafting a law to allow suffering and dying patients to request the help of a doctor to ease and aid their death.

A competent government would not be caught flat-footed by something like last week’s Supreme Court decision, which unanimously told the feds they have one year to put such a law onto the books.

That’s what a civil service is for in a modern democracy.

Aside from tweaking the wording to reflect the court ruling, the only delay for introducing such a law would be politics.

But we should not discount the politics in a decision like this one.

For the nation, it might be better to delay introducing a bill on doctor-assisted suicide until after the federal election, expected in October. A new government, with a new mandate, could summon the civil servants to produce their draft law, tweak it again and bring it to Parliament.

If it requires too much courage on the part of federal candidates to discuss the issue on the campaign trail, Prime Minister Stephen Harper can remove that from the campaign by introducing the law now, pushing it through to the Senate, before dissolving Parliament this summer.

In fact, a draft of such a bill does already exist. Conservative MP Steven Fletcher has introduced a private member’s bill that would allow assisted suicide for some individuals. And I do not doubt his bill has received assistance — with the knowledge and quiet approval of cabinet — from the civil service in its formation.

But again, political realities must be acknowledged.

About three-quarters of Canadians polled by Ipsos recently supported such a law, and 84 per cent of them agreed with the statement: “A doctor should be able to help someone end their life, if the person is a competent adult who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and repeatedly asks to die.”

Even so, the concerns of the minority need to be heard and addressed.

One such group would be people with disabilities. Another group would be people in palliative care, now and in the future.

Heidi Janz sits on the Bioethics Committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. Born with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, she wrote that resources for high-needs disabled people are too slim to justify a law simply making it easier for them to die.

She says that between 16 and 30 per cent of Canadians have access to palliative care, but in the disabled community it’s closer to five to 10 per cent.

“We won’t do anything to help you LIVE,” she wrote in an email to CBC in an online discussion of the Supreme Court case, “but now, we’re prepared to hasten your death.”

Those are precisely the concerns that politics are meant to address.

Dr. James Downar, a physician with Dying with Dignity — which commissioned the Ipsos poll — says the idea that this ruling will become a slippery slope into devaluing the lives of vulnerable people has not occurred in the jurisdictions that already allow doctor-assisted suicide.

Rather the opposite, he says. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and others are world leaders in providing palliative care for very sick people who want to live.

The option, the legal choice that people have in those countries, has led to improvements in palliative care, Downar claims.

We should have no doubt that our government knows these things, and has found models of compassionate policy that can be copied into Canadian law. Laws that I suspect already exist in draft form on Health Minister Rona Ambrose’s desk.

They would simply be waiting for final tweaks of wording and political timing to be introduced.

The Supreme Court has set a deadline, and government would not wish to risk being in contempt of court. A strong majority of support and opinion on this subject already seems to exist in the electorate.

Watch, then, how this — or the next — Canadian government approaches us with material any competent government would already have in hand.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email

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