Assisted-suicide ruling response requires nationwide debate

Last week's Supreme Court ruling on assisted suicide has given our MPs a year to bring in new legislation. The debate around what this law should look like must reach far beyond Parliament Hill. This is a critical democratic moment for any citizen who wishes to have input on this life and death matter, writes Stockwell Day.

Ruling goes beyond the terminally ill - and citizens must engage in what happens next, writes Stockwell Day

The Supreme Court has given MPs a year to rewrite the law after it struck down a ban on physician-assisted suicide for people 'grievous and irremediable' medical conditions. (Chris Kreussling)

Last week's Supreme Court ruling on assisted suicide has informed our MPs they have a year to bring in new legislation. The debate around what this law should look like must reach far beyond the precincts of Parliament Hill. This is a critical democratic moment for any citizen who wishes to have input on this life and death matter.

As a nation, we have shown in the past we are up to the task. It is time once again for a respectful national conversation, with our MPs listening closely.

People more skilled than I in matters of process can determine what the procedural and public platform should look like. But that platform must be put in place soon. The clock is ticking.

Some are already saying, "the case is closed, the judges have spoken." The judges indeed have spoken — but far from closing the file, they have flung it wide open.

Whatever we each feel about the issue, we at least should approach the potential brave new world with our eyes wide open. If you have not yet read through the ruling, as I have, I suggest you do so. It's not a difficult read. I thank the judges for that.

For instance, you will read that in their urgency to see assisted suicide legislated they do not limit its suggested practice to terminal illness. They mention conditions that are "grievous and irremediable," but they do not declare you must be terminally ill to qualify. They talk about physical pain, but also psychological pain.

And yes, a physician may be involved in your request to have someone end your life — but the judges also leave the field open to "those who are familiar with end of life decisions." That's a large, undefined group of people. It includes me. It probably includes you. It certainly includes my neighbour, who doesn't have a degree but has volunteered bedside for years at a local hospice.

It is also suggested in the ruling that though advice may be helpful, the decision is ultimately "intensely personal." It goes to how the individual herself values life.

The judges do not limit the right to an assisted death only to the elderly. They recognize, correctly, that this type of right extends to all adult citizens. That means 18-year-olds in some provinces, 19-year-olds in others.

Not in Canada?

The judges did listen to the testimony from a professor of bioethics from Belgium. He catalogued cases of genuine concern, extending far beyond the limits of an aged senior with a terminal illness. There are cases in that country involving 15- and 16-year-olds. There are cases where the right to counselling did not involve parents or even family members. Rare, yes — but they happen.

The judges' response was that these situations probably would not happen in Canada.

My heart goes out to every person and family who deals with these excruciating questions and agonizing situations. When my own father, in considerable pain and impairment, was nearing the end of his journey in this life he asked me to not allow him to be artificially sustained with tubes and machines. I assured him on that count.

However, I must add I am grateful he did not place me in a dilemma by asking me to take part in an act of suicide.

I respect our judicial and legislative system. It is not perfect, because it is populated with imperfect humans like me. But it is still a model for the world. And I respect the institution of the Supreme Court. I choose to live by the rule of law.

That does not mean I have to philosophically respect a particular ruling.

Judges are not gods. They are politically appointed former lawyers. They deserve our respect for the important work they do, but their decisions can be respectfully questioned.

This latest ruling begs respectful questioning and respectful debate. Let that formal debate among citizens begin. Soon.

Lives hang in the balance.

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Stockwell Day is a former public safety minister, international trade minister, Treasury Board president and leader of the opposition. He served in the Alberta legislature for 14 years and was an MP from 2000 to 2011, when he chose not to seek re-election. He is currently a consultant with Stockwell Day Connex and a frequent contributor to CBC News Network's Power & Politics.


Stockwell Day, a senior federal cabinet minister from 2006 to 2011, when he chose not to seek re-election, has been minister of public safety and international trade, as well as head of the Treasury Board. He is a regular contributor on the CBC News Network's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.


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