BY PETER STOCKLAND
Euthanasia? Assisted suicide? There’s an app for that.
Or there soon might be in Canada, the executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) told a joint Senate-Commons committee this week. The committee is studying legislative responses to replace the Criminal Code prohibition on helping someone end his or her life.
That provision was struck down, of course, exactly a year ago by the Supreme Court of Canada [in the Carter case]. Parliament is now scrambling to meet a court-imposed deadline for new legislation because the previous Conservative government folded its arms and refused to touch the issue.
The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) led in the battle to have the old law struck down. Not surprisingly, BCCLA representatives argued in front of the joint committee that any new law should be as minimalist as possible. By no means, executive director Josh Patterson contended, should there even be a requirement for a second medical opinion when a patient asks a doctor to end life prematurely.
Pressed as to why, in the age of miracles and wonders such as tele-medicine, simply getting a second opinion would constitute unreasonable delay, Patterson replied: “Maybe there will be an app we can use.”
In fairness, the rejoinder was a light touch for a very somber subject. His deeper point was about decision-making. Other medical decisions such as withdrawal of care and palliative sedation don’t require second opinions, the BCCLA argued, so it would be inconsistent to require them for directly taking a patient’s life.
Yet the app remark aptly underscored the rapidity with which discussion of what was called, not very long ago, “mercy killing” has become normalized, even banal. Along the way, starker words have been jettisoned, and even the distinct terms “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide” have been conflated and deflated into soft and wooly “medical aid in dying.”
The reason, said the executive officer of Dying With Dignity, is that nothing remains controversial about what was once a heinous violation of medical ethics and, up until February 6, 2015, a crime punishable by a maximum 14 years in prison.
“It’s about the values of compassion and choice,” Wanda Morris told me in a chat outside the committee room. “What is controversial about that?”
Morris was subject to minor controversy recently when it was reported she will replace the fired executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Retired Persons (CARP). Susan Eng, who had been CARP’s public face for eight years, says she was ousted for refusing to actively promote assisted suicide and euthanasia. Morris appropriately refuses to comment except to say that Moses Znaimer, who as CARP’s president axed Eng, was a founding member of Dying With Dignity.
Interest group internal matters aside, Morris told the committee that asking to be put to death must be considered strictly a matter of personal autonomy. She ceded no ground to the argument that such a view constitutes a national moral revolution and an overturning of millennia of medical ethics. On the contrary, she said, the Supreme Court judgment in the Carter case is just the beginning.
“Carter set the floor, not the ceiling,” she told the committee.
She urged senators and MPs to assure the legality of “advance directives” so that people at, say, 19, could set out conditions under which they would be “medically assisted to die” at, say, 89.
A one-page bureaucratic form would specify, for example that if a person is bedridden, unable to communicate, can’t shave himself, and loses control of bodily functions for 30 days, doctors could assume approval to administer death, she said.
“Advanced consent is the single most important issue. We do not need patients left to fend for themselves.”
For Conservative MP Harold Albrecht, the language of assumed normalcy that he heard during the committee hearing was “deeply disturbing” because it disregards the profound transformation in the Canadian understanding of the sanctity of human life. He’s also troubled by the implications for effective palliative care across Canada.
“I fear this being taken as normative,” Albrecht said. “It means we’re giving up before we’ve even begun to develop palliative care the way we should.”
And Albrecht bristled at the tight time line placed on the committee to deliver its final recommendations to cabinet. The expectation, he said, is that everything will be wrapped up by February 29 if the four-month deadline is to be met.
Euthanasia? Assisted suicide? Make it snappy.
Editor’s note. Peter Stockland is a senior writer for Cardus, a Canadian think tank a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture This article first appeared on the Cardus blog with permission.