Gillian Bennett death: Assisted suicide has not had proper debate, Tory MP says

Conservative MP Steven Fletcher says the issue of assisted suicide, again in the spotlight following the death of a B.C. woman with dementia, has never been properly debated in Parliament, despite what the justice minister claims.
Gillian Bennett, 84, made public her plans to commit suicide after being diagnosed three years earlier with dementia (Family handout)

Conservative MP Steven Fletcher says the issue of assisted suicide, again in the spotlight following the death of a B.C. woman with dementia, has never been properly debated in Parliament, despite what the justice minister claims.

And it's an issue that the Manitoba MP, who has introduced two private member's bills on doctor assisted suicide, says continues to gain support, including among his political allies and party colleagues.

"It’s more than people would surmise, including members of cabinet," Fletcher said, adding that he believes his proposed bills would have an excellent chance of passing second reading and move to the justice committee. 

The issue made headlines recently after Gillian Bennett, who was diagnosed with dementia three years ago, killed herself by ingesting drugs. Before her death, she had posted on her blog explaining why she was ending her life, saying she feared she would become a burden on her family and did not want to spend "an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting." Bennett also hoped to reopen the debate about assisted suicide in Canada.

In a statement, Justice Minister Peter MacKay offered his condolences to the family of Bennett, adding that "assisted suicide is an emotional and divisive issue for many Canadians."

"It is our government's position that the Criminal Code provisions prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia are in place to protect all persons, including those who are most vulnerable in our society," he said.  "Furthermore, in April 2010, a large majority of parliamentarians voted not to change these laws, which is an expression of democratic will on this topic."

MacKay was referring to a private member's bill supporting assisted suicide for those seriously ill that had been introduced in 2009 by former Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde, who died of bone cancer earlier this year. 

But Fletcher believes that bill was easily defeated because it was poorly worded (even Fletcher abstained), and didn't get into the complexities of the issue. It was also at a disadvantage since federalist parties are often not keen to support a bill coming from the Bloc, he said.

"I would say that Parliament has actually not had a debate on this issue," he said.

One of Fletcher's two bills would, if passed, allow doctors to help people end their lives under certain restricted circumstances. According to the proposed bill, the individual would have to have been diagnosed by a doctor as having "an illness, a disease or disability (including disability arising from traumatic injury) that causes physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to that person and that cannot be alleviated by any medical treatment acceptable to that person."

Or, "the person must be in a state of weakening capacities with no chance of improvement."

The person must also be of "sound mind," meaning someone like Bennett may not be able to get assistance.

"The challenge with that particular case deals around the mental competency of the individual," Fletcher said. "So was she of competent mind when she took her action? I don’t know those details but my legislation isn't going to address every issue."

Fletcher's second bill, if passed would set up a commission to monitor the system. 

Fletcher's bills, introduced in March, come as a number of high-profile cases continue to push the issue into the spotlight.

Earlier this week, the Canadian Medical Association appeared to soften its stance on physician assisted suicide, voting overwhelmingly in favour of an advisory resolution that supports "the right of all physicians, within the bonds of existing legislation, to follow their conscience when deciding whether to provide so-called medical aid in dying."

Meanwhile, in June, Quebec's National Assembly passed Bill 52, also known as an act respecting end-of-life care, which would allow a doctor who has been given the consent of the patient to administer medication to cause death.

And, perhaps most significantly, in January, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear an appeal by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) who are seeking to allow seriously and incurably ill but mentally competent adults the right to receive medical assistance to hasten death under specific safeguards. 

This means the case could be taken out of the hands of politicians, a situation Fletcher would find regrettable.

"Wouldn't it be great if the elected representatives in Canada proactively acted on something that was in front of the Supreme Court, rather than the Supreme Court of unelected judges tell Parliament what to do?"

With files from The Canadian Press