A former Conservative cabinet minister who was left paralyzed from the neck down by a 1996 car crash plans to introduce two private member's bills which would allow assisted suicide in some cases.
Steven Fletcher, a Manitoba MP who was dropped from the federal cabinet last summer, is going against government policy with his proposed legislation.
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One of Fletcher's two bills would, if passed, allow doctors to help people end their lives under certain restricted circumstances. The second would set up a commission to monitor the system.
"There will be a set of statutory requirements that must be met before the act of physician-assisted death can happen," Fletcher said Wednesday while speaking to a Conservative caucus meeting.
"The commission will be taking a very close look at each case as it occurs and provide recommendations over time on how to best improve the process."
He wouldn't go into specific details, saying that will have to wait until after the bills are introduced in the House of Commons.
That could be a long wait.
Government House leader Peter Van Loan said Fletcher's bill is number 240 on the order of precedence — a list of private members' items established from a random draw of names.
"So I don't think it's something on which we are going to end up having to vote in this Parliament, at least if it's carried by him," Van Loan said.
The legislation is likely to face a tough time in the Commons, which last looked at the issue in 2010 and voted against it by a wide margin.
Government against reopening issue
Justice Minister Peter MacKay said he has no interest in starting that debate again.
"I think it's a very, very personal issue, a very contentious issue one that Parliament examined in the not-too-distant past and spoke quite clearly, pronounced itself on it, so I'm not in any hurry to reopen that issue," he said.
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott said he will vote against Fletcher's bills.
"I think there's great palliative care and other things that we can do instead," he said.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said the concept is at odds with her Roman Catholic faith.
"I take very seriously the issues associated with this and, as a result, I personally am not in favour of assisted suicide."
But Fletcher said the ensuing debate is what matters, because the question is currently being argued in the courts, rather than in Parliament, where he said it belongs.
"I believe that these issues should be decided in Parliament," he said. "I think it's very important that we have a debate."
The Supreme Court of Canada, which in 1993 narrowly ruled against Sue Rodriguez in her much-debated bid for assisted suicide, has agreed to hear another British Columbia right-to-die case this spring. Rodriguez, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, took her own life in 1994 with the help of an anonymous doctor.
"When I reflect back on the Sue Rodriguez case, I really felt that she should have been able to legally receive what was ultimately done," Fletcher said.
A Quebec bill on assisted suicide met its demise in the national assembly when the provincial election was called.
Bill will have safeguards, Fletcher says
Fletcher broke his neck in 1996 when his car hit a moose. He still requires 24-hour attendant care. He recalls lying helpless in a hospital bed, on a ventilator, in danger of drowning in his own phlegm. But he says the stringent requirements in his bill likely wouldn't have let him choose to die.
"It would have been very difficult for me to have taken that option. There are safeguards."
He said his bill is aimed at those who have nothing to look forward to but pain. "This is designed to help people who are in pain and suffering and most likely lived most of their lives."
Groups representing the disabled have argued strongly against right-to-die legislation, saying it could lead to abuses against some handicapped people. Fletcher said he disagrees.
"I'm obviously part of that group," he said. "The disabled community is not monolithic in its thinking.
"The standards are very high. They will argue about the slippery slope. I don't buy into that."
Opposition parties taking pause
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said while he's looking forward to debating Fletcher's bill, he's waiting on the Supreme Court's judgment on the right-to-die case for guidance.
"I'm a Liberal, so I believe in people's individual freedoms to make decisions," he told reporters Wednesday.
"But at the same time, it is important in society that we protect our most vulnerable and we make sure that we are keeping people safe."
New Democrat justice critic Francoise Boivin is taking the same approach. She said she is "still waiting" on the Supreme Court case because the NDP caucus is "just starting the conversation on such a sensitive issue."
"I think it's a personal question for a lot of people," she said.
Boivin acknowledged that an aging population means this topic will continue to be discussed, but the party will wait to have more information before adopting a position.
"Like MPs, I mean we represent the population," she said.
"Depending on who you talk to, they have very strong opinions so I think, overall at the end of the day, you have to look at it in a very sensitive way and make sure that the preoccupation and the worries of a certain part of the population is addressed."