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

TORONTO – It’s time for Canadians and their leaders to talk about the taboo of assisted suicide as part of end-of-life care, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said Wednesday.

The federal government must decide whether to make it legal, but it also affects the provinces, who are responsible for health care, she said.

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


A prominent doctor’s impassioned, videotaped appeal to legalize assisted suicide just a few days before he died from cancer has re-opened the emotionally charged debate.

Dr. Donald Low, who shepherded 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.

Low put a human face on the controversial subject, Matthews said.

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

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

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 Matthews 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 improving 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 provincial 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.

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’s a slippery slope toward euthanasia without consent of people with mental illness, physical handicaps or the elderly.

Progressive Conservative health critic Christine Elliott said she’s “very torn on this issue.”

“It is a very substantive issue and one that I approach quite warily. But I think that we should have the discussion and understand what’s at stake and what other jurisdictions have done.”

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