It's time to talk about assisted suicide: Ontario health minister

TORONTO – Ontario’s health minister says it’s time for Canadians and their leaders to talk about assisted suicide, but the federal Conservatives are making it clear that they have no intention of reopening that emotionally charged debate.

“We have no desire to reintroduce legislation that would open this issue up,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay said Wednesday.

“There’s no denying that this touches a lot of people and it is a very emotional, very personal subject.”

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in Canada. But Canadians need to talk about the taboo subject and end-of-life care, said Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews.

“I think it’s about the community having the conversation, I think it’s about people having the conversation,” she said.

The Quebec government has tabled right-to-die legislation, the first of its kind in Canada. But Matthews said it’s up to the federal government to decide whether it should legalize assisted suicide.

The issue resurfaced recently after a prominent doctor made an impassioned, videotaped appeal to legalize assisted suicide just a few days before his death.

Dr. Donald Low, who guided Toronto through the 2003 SARS crisis, asked that Canada allow people to die with dignity, eight days before he died from a brain tumour last week at age 68.

“Donald Low’s video was very powerful and many people have personally experienced it,” Matthews said.

“There are strong opinions on this. I think it’s a conversation we need to have.”

MacKay said he also saw part of the heart-wrenching video, which was released Tuesday.

“It’s an understatement to say these are very complex and emotionally charged issues in every instance,” he said.

MacKay said he’s talked about it with fellow Conservative Steven Fletcher, who is a quadriplegic and supports assisted suicide.

“He holds a very personal view and a very personal perspective, given what Steven’s been through in his life,” MacKay said.

“Having said that, it is a very slippery slope when one starts to contemplate the various scenarios and the range of circumstances in which people can find themselves,” he said.

“We’re into the area of moral questions. And I simply do not believe it is in our best interest to open up the debate or to bring forward legislation that would change the current laws that are meant to protect people from abuse.”

In the video, Low said he is not in pain but his vision, hearing and strength are waning and he worries what will happen before the end.

It will be a long time before Canada matures to a level where it accepts dying with dignity, he said. But he pleaded with opponents of assisted suicide to reconsider.

If they lived in his body for 24 hours, they’d change their opinion, he said.

Some oppose legalizing assisted suicide on religious grounds, while others believe that it could lead to euthanasia without consent of people with mental illness, physical handicaps or the elderly.

The Quebec government is already holding public hearings on its legislation which would outline the conditions necessary for someone to get medical assistance to die.

The federal government plans to review it.

Matthews said she’d be surprised if the topic doesn’t come up when provincial, federal and territorial health ministers meet in Toronto on Sept. 27.

But she wouldn’t divulge her own view about assisted suicide.

“Of course, I have strong personal opinions. I think everybody does,” she said. “But I’m not speaking as a person, I’m speaking as health minister for Ontario.”

Right now, her priority is to improve end-of-life care in Ontario, including palliative care to hospices, she added.

Talking about end-of-life options is a pressing issue as the baby boom generation ages, said Ontario NDP health critic France Gelinas.

“Not that long ago, people went to hospital to die. This is where death happened,” she said.

“Baby boomers are not satisfied with this. … They realize that there are ways to support a dying person that is way better than dying in a hospital.”

People should talk about it so they can learn more about the options and make up their mind on what they think should be done, she said.

— With files from Diana Mehta.

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