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An Election Has Put the Brakes on Doctor-Assisted Suicide Consultations in Canada

In February, Canada's Supreme Court unanimously struck down the federal laws that made it a crime for doctors to help their patients die. It gave the government a year to come up with legislation to govern the practice.

by Rachel Browne
Aug 3 2015, 3:40pm

Wanda Morris, CEO of Dying With Dignity, following Supreme Court decision. photo by Fred Lum, The Globe and Mail

This February, right-to-die advocates in Canada rejoiced when the country's Supreme Court unanimously struck down the federal laws that made it a crime for doctors to help their patients die.

For the first time in Canadian history, doctors would be allowed to help "competent" adults suffering from irreversible medical conditions die on their terms.

The judges gave Parliament until February 2016 to craft a new law — if it doesn't, the court's ruling will take over.

But with the federal election campaign now officially on — much earlier than was anticipated — a public consultation process that only just began must come to a halt, leading activists to fear Canadians will lose the opportunity to have their say about any new law and be left in the lurch for even longer.

"We honestly believe that people's lives, and the quality of their deaths, are truly at stake," Wanda Morris, CEO of Dying with Dignity, a national group that advocates for choice at the end of life, told VICE News. "We might talk about waiting a few days, a week, or even a month, as though it's not a big deal. But if you're suffering horribly, every hour can seem like an eternity."

The court's landmark decision was a major blow to the Conservative government, which argued that a complete ban on the practice was necessary to protect the value of human life.

It then promised to consult Canadians and experts on the matter before the February deadline, but remained mum about it until a couple weeks ago, when the federal justice minister announced summertime public consultations. He asked the three-person panel leading it to report back by late fall.

Advocates subsequently accused the panel of being biased because it includes two people who were on the government's side in the Supreme Court ruling.

Now, an early election has further complicated matters, argues Morris, who questions the government's desire to engage with Canadians on assisted dying. And if the government attempts to have the deadline extended because of the delays, the people who want to end their lives sooner will suffer for longer, she said.

Related: PM Stephen Harper Triggers Canada's Longest Election Campaign Since 1872, Amid Faltering Economy

"I'm really concerned that they are playing politics and deferring this when we're talking about life and death matters for Canadians," Morris added. "The delay in announcing the panel and having an unreasonable time to report means that it's an issue to be dealt with after the election."

Dr. Harvey Chochinov, the panel's chair, told VICE News in an email that "[p]anel members have a deep respect for the democratic process and we will honor our terms of reference, which require us to cease active consultations during an election period."

"While the Panel has been given extremely tight and challenging timelines, we are still very committed and prepared to serve, and are doing everything within our means to succeed...Our panel plans to pay careful attention to what Canadians and stakeholders have to say about the implementation of assisted dying."

Chochinov added that Canadians may continue to submit comments during the election period through the panel's website. During the election, the panel will still "analyze and assess online input."

Linda Jarrett, who has lived with multiple sclerosis, a disease with no known cure that ravages the nervous system, for the last 16 years, was thrilled by the court's ruling in February and has been waiting anxiously for the government's response — and disappointed it will have to wait until after the election. Jarrett, a 67-year-old woman from Kitchener, Ontario, has no idea how much time she has left, and has recently given a lot of thought to how she might choose to end her own life before she may not be physically able.

"I was truly ready to actively seek how to hasten my death while I was still physically capable of doing so, so as not to implicate anyone else in assisting me," Jarrett told VICE News in an email, adding that the recent births of her grandchildren has made her all the more anxious to have the law finalized. "[W]ith this joy in my life comes the agony of what my future will be like. When my quality of life is no longer acceptable to me, I truly hope that the solution proposed by the Supreme Court ruling is available to me."

In an attempt to fill any gaps left by the government's process, Morris says Dying with Dignity plans to host its own consultations later this summer.

Related: A Controversial Proposal Could Legalize Assisted Suicide in France in 2015

For decades, doctor-assisted suicide has been a fraught issue in Canada. Assisted suicide, when someone provides someone else with the tools to end their own life, differs from euthanasia, which is when someone deliberately ends the life of someone else because they are suffering. The Supreme Court ruling allows for both of these, meaning that a doctor could both assist a suicide and directly end someone's life at their request.

The February ruling, in response to an application by two women with terminal illnesses who died before the ruling, overturned the 1992 Supreme Court decision in the case of Sue Rodriguez, a woman with ALS who unsuccessfully argued for the right to end her own life. The court upheld the existing laws in that case.

In June 2014, Quebec became the first province in Canada to allow people to seek medical assistance to die after it passed its end-of-life legislation. Under the law, terminally ill patients who reside in Quebec can request palliative sedation to die.

Stephen Fletcher, a Conservative Member of Parliament who was left a quadriplegic in 1996 after a car accident, has already tried to push through two bills that would allow physicians to help people die in certain circumstances. Those proposed bills have been delayed.

Regardless of the government's consultation process, he says it's unlikely that any new legislation will be proposed in time for the February 2016 deadline. "I've been saying that since the Supreme Court made its decision," Fletcher told VICE News. "It's through nobody's fault that the timelines are so short. We all knew there was an election this year. And the Supreme Court gave a year to deal with this issue...it just isn't enough time."

A 2014 poll commissioned by Dying with Dignity of more than 2,500 Canadians found broad support for doctor-assisted suicide, with 84% saying they agreed that a doctor should be allowed to help a terminally ill person die.

Numerous Canadians, including physicians, have been criminally charged for helping others end their own lives.

Assisted death is permitted around the world in places such as Oregon, Belgium, and Switzerland.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter@rp_browne