Doctor-assisted suicide panel includes original Crown witnesses

The three-person panel to advise the federal government on doctor-assisted suicide includes two of the Crown's witnesses in the original case that led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling.

Panel to report by late fall to shape federal government's response to Supreme Court's Carter ruling

The three-person panel to advise the federal government on doctor-assisted suicide includes Catherine Frazee, one of the Crown's witnesses in the original case that led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling. (Courtesy of Catherine Frazee)

The three-person panel to advise the federal government on doctor-assisted suicide includes two of the Crown's witnesses in the original case that led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling.

The federal government has named three academics, including an expert on palliative care, to lead consultations on how to respond to the Supreme Court ruling on doctor-assisted dying.

Harvey Max Chochinov, the Canada research chair in palliative care at the University of Manitoba, will head the panel. The other two members are Catherine Frazee, a former co-director of the Ryerson-RBC Institute for Disability Studies Research and Education, and Benoît Pelletier, a University of Ottawa law professor and former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister.

Chochinov and Frazee were both witnesses used to support the Crown's case against doctor-assisted dying in the original British Columbia Supreme Court challenge, which eventually led to the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that asserted the right of some patients to ask for a doctor's help to die.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, said while his organization has no concerns about the panel members' credentials, they are worried about the "appearance of a lack of impartiality."

The BCCLA filed the original lawsuit in the case.

"Two of the members of the panel, while well-respected people in their fields, were witnesses for the Crown in this case against us, were people [who] have been vociferous, loud opponents of physician-assisted dying, publicly, all the way through, and were part of the government's case against this. So we're really disappointed with the composition."

Report due by late fall

Last February, the Supreme Court ruled people with grievous and irremediable medical conditions should have the right to ask a doctor to help them die.

Lee Carter, left, appears with Grace Pastine, litigation director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. Carter and her husband accompanied her 89-year-old mother, Kathleen (Kay) Carter to Switzerland in 2010 where assisted suicide is legal, to end her life. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The case was brought forward by Kathleen Carter, 89, who had the painful degenerative condition spinal stenosis. Her daughter, Lee, took her to Switzerland in 2010 for an assisted death. 

The court limited the right to competent adults with enduring, intolerable suffering who clearly consent to ending their lives.

The court gave federal and provincial governments 12 months to craft legislation to respond to the ruling; the ban on doctor-assisted suicide stands until Feb. 6, 2016.

If the government doesn't write a new law, the court's exemption for physicians will stand.

Dr. Thomas Bouchard, a board member of Canadian Physicians for Life, said he is pleased Chochinov is on the panel because of his experience in palliative care. Bouchard said Chochinov is an excellent physician and well suited to deal with the complexity of the issue.

"It's hard to have a balanced panel if there's only three people," Bouchard said. "If two are of one side and one of the other, somebody's going to complain. Of course, I'm happy because they're representative of a view that respects life until a natural end," he said.

"When people make a request for assisted death, they're crying out for help and whether that's for palliative care or a thoughtful and caring physician … we have to step up our game and provide even more care for this person who is in probably some moral distress as well as some physical distress."

The only direct consultations to be done by the panel, according to the government's frequently asked questions, will be those who intervened in the Supreme Court case, as well as "relevant medical authorities."

The panel is to provide a final report to the ministers of justice and health by late fall.

Government to seek extension

The language in the court decision leaves several big questions for lawmakers and those who regulate the medical profession.

Peter MacKay will no longer be justice minister when the panel reports. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The court didn't limit the right to those with physical suffering, leaving the possibility those with severe depression and mental illness could ask for the right to die. And while the language is plain, "grievous" is hard to define in medical terms.

It also didn't limit the right to ask for help for those with physical disabilities that would prevent them from taking action on their own, leaving open the possibility an able-bodied person could request a physician's assistance to end his or her life.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said last month that consultations had started informally and described the process as including an online component to let any Canadian comment, plus roundtable discussions.

"We are going to have a panel made up of people who have obvious interest and knowledge and background in this area, people from the medical, legal, ethics [communities]," MacKay told Rosemary Barton on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

"Certainly a faith-based perspective [is sought], the disabilities community [has] an enormous interest in this. We want to have as broad a consultation, as inclusive a process as possible."

While the court gave the government a year to respond, that includes the summer and at least a 37-day election campaign — periods Parliament doesn't sit. The government also slowed down the process by waiting five months to announce its panel of experts.

MacKay said the next attorney general would ask for an extension from the Supreme Court to avoid the law being voided.