Pundits weigh in

March 2, 2016

Last week I wrote about the recommendations to Parliament made by a committee of MPs to guide legislation of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada. As I said then, the recommendations are irresponsible in the extreme. In the past few days, a number of responses to the Committee’s report have appeared in Canada’s leading newspapers, and I think it is worth drawing attention to them.

The Toronto Star, which is Canada’s largest left-leaning paper, was gently but unequivocally critical of the recommendations, seeing them as needlessly inflammatory and potentially dangerous:

Given the fraught nature of this file, compassion and caution, not compulsion, should be the government’s watchword as it goes ahead. A physician’s first duty is, after all, to do no harm.

A Toronto Star columnist, Thomas Walkom, also highlighted the apparent unwillingness of the Committee to consider the implications of its recommendations for the vulnerable. “Death, it seems, is easier.”

And just today — and frankly rather astoundingly — the Toronto Star has run an op-ed by Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, arguing for conscience protections for doctors:

When the state goes beyond its legitimate but limited role and suppresses conscience rights, I am reminded of a man whose employer told him to do something against his conscience. He courageously replied: “You employ me; you don’t own me.”

Just before the recommendations were issued last week, the Globe & Mail ran a prescient column by Margaret Somerville of McGill University, who has been one of our leading public voices urging skepticism about the putative goods of assisted suicide and euthanasia. She focused on the Liberal Party’s plan to whip the vote on the grounds that assisted suicide and euthanasia are allegedly “Charter issues”:

This “hide behind the Charter” strategy resonates with an “obedience to higher orders” defence to wrongdoing (“it wasn’t my decision, I was forced to do it”), which the law has never accepted as valid.

Also in the Globe & Mail, constitutional lawyer David Baker and University of Toronto professor Trudo Lemmens have written a scathing critique of the Committee’s work:

Essentially all disabilities can be included in the open-ended criteria for access, extending the law beyond the persons with irreversibly declining capacities at the end-of-life that the Supreme Court ruled upon, and disregarding the court’s determination that “psychiatric disorders” were expressly excluded, as well as children, even if children would only have access three years after the new legislation is introduced. The committee further recommends access by advanced directive for people suffering from dementia, which most agree would create a practical and ethical minefield.

In the National Post, Andrew Coyne puts the Committee’s report in context, arguing that each step in the process of legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia has extended the conditions under which it would be permitted:

So the court not only opened the door to assisted suicide, but opened it a little wider than it had been asked to. Nonetheless, it remained confident that the door would open no further. Indeed, the ruling arguably depended on it. The Crown’s case for retaining the prohibition, after all, had rested on the concern that the logic of assisted suicide would not permit it to be limited to the sort of narrow circumstances the court had in mind. Expert testimony was called on the experience in Belgium and other countries, where eligibility for assisted suicide has been extended to children, the mentally incompetent, and others.

The court found this sort of “anecdotal” evidence unpersuasive. These countries, it said, had a very different “medico-legal culture” than ours. In Canada, the “risks” of legalized killing could be limited “through a carefully designed and monitored system of safeguards.”

That was a year ago. The court’s ruling has not yet taken effect, and already we have the report of an all-party joint committee on “physician-assisted dying” recommending legislation that would go far beyond what the court prescribed.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Medical Association has expressed its disappointment with the Committee’s failure to recommend protections for health-care workers who refuse to participate in death-dealing. The CMA has consistently been strong on this point, opposing also the provincial medical colleges, such as those for Ontario and Saskatchewan, who have abandoned conscientious protections for their physicians.

There have been some hear-no-evil, see-no-evil responses to the Committee’s work as well, but all in all I take the above commentary to be broadly encouraging. There may yet be the will to override the Joint Committee’s awful recommendations.

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