Health Minister Jane Philpott to testify about the federal government’s controversial bill on assisted dyingl before the Senate in Ottawa on June 1, 2016. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Your death, your choice.
We don’t choose to be born. It just happens. When we are young and vulnerable, we have little say in how we live.
It is not until we grow older that we begin to hopefully have choices. While we may be limited by economic reality or health challenges, it is basically up to us, citizens in a free, participatory democracy, to choose our priorities and goals.
Rarely though, do we have an opportunity to voice our thoughts about a seminal issue facing our Parliament. Both Houses, our elected Commons and our unelected Senate, are grappling in real time with the one of the most critical issues we will ever face as a nation, the right to medically assisted death. Raw politics and complex ethical decisions are in danger of a collision unless strong leadership is demonstrated quickly.
The background to the epic battle is legal. Unlike the lack of choice when we were born, our Supreme Court in the groundbreaking Carter decision has clearly stated that competent adults with grievous and irremediable medical conditions that cause intolerable suffering, will now have the right to medically assisted death. By leaving individuals to endure uncontrolled suffering, the court reasoned that certain kinds of suffering impinge on the security of the person under section 7 of the Charter.
Having made that legal finding, the court then properly turned to Canadian legislators to come up with a coherent, transparent framework for the protection of all. Not an easy task and a task made harder by the imposition of deadlines that perhaps were too ambitious. Because the deadline passed, a yawning void (somewhat like Ottawa’s sinkhole) has opened up and the provinces have had to jump in to fill in the dots. This is not a sustainable situation. Individual patients and health-care workers are waiting to have answers. Time is literally running out for some people.
When “the right to die with dignity” issue became a leading policy discussion in the 2015 election, all parties knew this would be difficult. The Liberals promised to introduce legislation quickly yet it was not until April of this year that legislation was tabled after a House of Commons committee report, whose more expansive recommendations were ignored by cabinet.
This left only a few weeks for the ‘new, improved Senate’ with its combustible mixture of warhorses from both the Liberals and the Conservatives to mix it up with eager, independent ‘newbie’ Senators to come up with approval of the legislation.
Clearly, this will now not happen in a timely way, as senators have amended the legislation. At the time of this writing, the Senate, which used to be seen as a prom date for whichever government was in control, is now a blind date. Who knows if there is a long-term relationship ahead?
This week, I participated in the unveiling of a stunning painting by Toronto artist, Stephanie MacKendrick, which I had commissioned to honour the extraordinary nursing team on 5AFell, the surgical spinal floor at Toronto Western Hospital. These nurses literally saved my life last year and supported me with compassion and strength in the tough days that followed.
Returning to the hospital setting a year later, memories came flooding back. I realized how much I would want the right to medically assisted suicide, should my pain and suffering ever become intolerable and I also realized the impact that those decisions would have, not only on doctors, but on nurses, pharmacists, personal support workers and carers.
Procedural jousting is often normal parliamentary procedure when faced with conflict over legislation and can in fact, be a healthy exercise in democracy. Nevertheless, procedural games, partisan issues and any attempt by one House to ‘one up’ the other, are dangerous at this stage and should not distract us from the fact that medically assisted death, is in fact, a ‘game changer,’ potentially for each of us personally and for our country.
You have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to use your voice in this issue. It is not too late. Call your MP. Call your senator.
It is your life. Maybe your death. Your choice.