Former Conservative MP Steven Fletcher told senators and MPs on an assisted-dying committee the government should ensure any law governing the practice is simple, and allows for provincial tailoring, because in his experience "Ottawa can really screw this up."

"Anything that comes from Ottawa is bound to fail when it comes to the cross-jurisdictional issues of law and healthcare," he said. 

The special joint Commons committee on physician-assisted dying was struck in response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision last year which ruled that a ban on physician-assisted dying violated Canadians' charter rights, giving the government a year to pass new legislation.

The high court recently extended the deadline until June to allow the Liberal government time to hold public these consultations and deliver a new law. 

Five senators and 11 MPs — including six Liberals, three Conservatives and two New Democrats — form the committee, which convened Monday. They are holding a series of public consultations to hear from experts and stakeholders with the goal of reporting back with legislative suggestions by Feb. 26. 

Recalling the 1996 car accident in which he hit a moose and was left paralyzed at the age of 23, Fletcher told the assisted-dying committee that he has no feeling below the neck and cannot feel pain or pleasure. He said he is trapped in his body and must rely on care giving for the rest of his life in order to survive.

Immediately after the accident he was told he would have to spend the rest of his life in an institution and joked that he never thought that institution would be the Parliament of Canada.

Keep law simple

Discussing the two assisted-dying private member's bills he introduced into Parliament when he was an MP, Fletcher said the response to his bills was "deafeningly quiet" and that it "wasn't a good place to be."

The former MP asked the committee to keep any law simple and only require that a person be a Canadian resident, be 18 or older and be of sound mind.

"Don't make it difficult, keep it simple," he said.

Fletcher urged the committee to stick as close as it could to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in early 2015 and to allow provinces to tailor an assisted-dying law to suit the realities in individual provinces.

"Having someone suffer, starving themselves to death, down the hall, or down the street, or in a hospital, or at home, having them live in terror, does not make my life better," Fletcher said. "We have to recognize that people suffer, and to impose our view, or any group to impose any view on anyone else, is non-Canadian and non-constitutional, because it infringes on freedom and the ability for self-determination."

Quoting from the Victorian poem Invictus by the English poet William Ernest Henley, Fletcher told the committee: "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul."

Informed consent

Rhonda Wiebe, co-chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities' ending-of-life ethics group, also presented evidence to the committee.

She said a person seeking a physician-assisted death must be able to provide informed consent and not be in a position where they are vulnerable to persuasion.

Linda Jarrett, a member of Dying with Dignity Canada's disability advisory council, told the committee that "safeguards need to be in place to ensure vulnerable people do not receive an assisted death they did not want."

Jarrett, 67, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 50, said doctors should have the right to opt out of administering an assisted death, but that they must be compelled to transfer a patient into the care of a doctor who will.

"Providing a website or the Yellow Pages is not enough," she said.

Definition of 'adult' unclear

Jocelyn Downie, professor of law and medicine at Dalhousie University and an expert in end-of-life legislation, also gave evidence to the committee.

She said any new law should respect the right of individuals to make free and informed decisions, protect vulnerable persons from being induced to end their lives, enhance access to medically-assisted death and ensure any system is well monitored.

She also said the definition of 'adult' should not mean a specific age but rather a level of competence, and neither should a new law exclude someone from receiving a medically assisted death if they suffer with a mental illness.

Professor Trudo Lemmens, of the faculty of law and Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, warned the panel that that practice of physician-assisted in death in Belgium and The Netherlands has increased from its initial intentions, to include people suffering with "personality disorders, anxiety, addiction, autism and profound grief."

David Baker, a lawyer with Bakerlaw, which specializes in disability and human rights law, also gave evidence. He said a review board should be used to take the pressure off of doctors determining eligibility of a patient for an assisted-death.