OTTAWA – Two months after Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to consult widely on doctor-assisted dying, the federal government has yet to reveal how it intends to canvass Canadians’ views on the emotional issue – much less how it intends to legislate on the subject.
And time is running out.
When the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on physician-assisted dying last February, it gave the federal government 12 months to craft a new law that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help to end their lives.
With Parliament scheduled to sit just six more weeks before an extended break for the summer and a fall election, the government has only three or four months in which to introduce, debate and pass a new law.
Time is so short that Conservative MP Steven Fletcher suspects the most likely upshot is there will be no new federal law, leaving provinces to fill the vacuum with a patchwork of laws, within the parameters of the top court’s ruling.
“It’s quite possible there will be no federal law,” Fletcher said in an interview.
Indeed, Fletcher, who has championed legalization of medically assisted dying, believes it’s already too late to meet the court-imposed deadline.
“I don’t see where there’s the time to pass legislation between now and Feb. 6 that would deal with this issue. I just don’t see how it can be done.”
The government has already ruled out asking the court for an extension.
Harper’s Conservatives voted two months ago against a Liberal motion that called for creation of a special, multi-party committee that would consult and report back to Parliament by mid-summer with a proposed framework for a new law.
At the time, the government promised that it would launch its own consultation process.
Bob Dechert, parliamentary secretary to the health minister, argued that consultation by a committee wouldn’t be broad enough to do justice to such a complex, explosive issue.
“In fact, we are suggesting tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Canadians need to be heard on this issue,” he said, promising that “meaningful consultations” via the Internet, public meetings and other means would be launched “very soon.”
Not another word has been heard about the consultation since.
Asked last week about the deafening silence, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Peter MacKay said: “We recognize the tight timeline imposed on us by the Supreme Court and we should be in a position to announce the way forward on this file in due course.”
Opposition MPs have speculated that the Conservatives are deliberately dragging their feet, reluctant to take action before the election on a issue that could alienate some of their supporters – including some incumbent Tory MPs who’ve called on the government to invoke the constitutional notwithstanding clause to override the court’s ruling.
Fletcher acknowledged that most politicians “would rather have their eyes scratched out” than deal with the issue of doctor-assisted dying. That explains why, in his view, two private member’s bills he introduced on the subject two years ago have gone nowhere fast.
His bills could be used as a starting point for crafting a new law. They’ll die on the order paper once an election is called but, even so, Fletcher said he wouldn’t want Parliament to rush to pass his legislation before then.
“I want the legislation to be scrutinized,” he said, noting that he’s “just one guy, a backbench guy,” who drafted his bills with the help of the Library of Parliament.
Once the election is out of the way, Fletcher speculated that the government might change its mind about asking the top court for an extension. But it’s debatable whether the court would agree to the kind of lengthy extension Fletcher believes is required – he notes that Quebec spent four years crafting its law on doctor-assisted dying.
Should the country wind up with no federal law, Fletcher stressed that wouldn’t mean some sort of Wild West “free-for-all” would ensue. The court, he noted, has laid down a host of strict conditions that must be met to legally end one’s life with the help of a doctor.
“I would want to be very clear that if that (federal legal void) were to happen and if someone took it upon themselves to end someone’s life, not a physician, without consent … that would be murder.”