PHOTO COURTESY SCOTT HAMILTON
By Leah Hansen
On Feb. 6 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled assisted suicide as no longer illegal. The decision came after the original case — includings two citizens with irreversible medical conditions — challenged Canada’s provisions in court in 2011.
By the time Supreme Court heard the case, it was October 2014 and both original plaintiffs, Lee Carter and Gloria Taylor, had died. The final decision in Carter v. Canada was unanimous — the prohibition on assisted suicide violates section seven of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Supreme Court suspended its ruling for 12 months to give the federal government time to adjust legislation. Ottawa took action in July by appointing three people to a consultation panel. By mid-November, they plan to produce a report to the Ministers of Justice and Health — not giving recommendations, but instead laying out various legislative options.
The appointment of these particular panel members generated some controversy. Catherine Frazee, Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov and Benoît Pelletier were all appointed with different areas of expertise related to assisted dying. However, Frazee and Chochinov were formerly Crown witnesses in the government’s appeal of the original 2012 ruling, and have formerly expressed opinions against assisted dying. Various media outlets have decried their involvement comes with bias towards the issue.
Frazee, a Professor Emerita at Ryerson and former co-director of RBC Ryerson Institute for Disability Studies, Research and Education, spoke with The Eyeopener on assisted dying, her role on the panel and the allegations of bias.
Why is the right to die important for Canadians?
It’s apparent that the issue of assisted dying is one that goes to the very heart of our human condition. It involves questions of individual autonomy and choice at the same time as it highlights human vulnerability and suffering. Some people feel strongly that they should have the right to choose how and when to end their life and that in a compassionate and caring society, we must honour this right with sensitivity and support. Other people are deeply concerned that assisted death will be more readily available than palliative care, or other supports that relieve suffering.
What will the rights of physicians be once new legislation comes into effect?
Any physician will have the right, as matter of conscience, to refuse to participate directly in euthanasia or assisted suicide. How this right will be reconciled with a patient’s right to seek assisted dying is one issue that our panel is asking Canadians to advise on.
What ethical issues must be considered while forming legislation?
If there are ethical issues still at play, these are issues pertaining to how we put this new practice into effect. Research suggests, for example, that people who are strongly in favour of assisted dying are predominantly white, well-educated and economically well-situated. In a nation both legally and ethically committed to equality and inclusion, we will need to ensure that our new laws do not disadvantage socially vulnerable and minority populations.
There’s been media coverage around this perceived bias. You and Dr. Chochinov were crown witnesses in the original BC Court of Appeals case. Would you agree this is an impediment to the appearance of impartiality?
If both Dr. Chochinov and I had not had longstanding careers in which we have demonstrated our ability not to be improperly influenced by our personal views, then I think one might have questioned the nature of the appointment. But I’m confident we’re doing our job with integrity and transparency.
What was your position on this issue before your appointment?
It’s a matter of public record that I was working with the disability rights community in Canada, that I was representing both the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and the Canadian Association for Community Living, and that in that role, those organizations were opposed. They put themselves on the line to stand against an amendment to permit assisted dying. For myself, I think that is history. The supreme court of Canada spoke very decisively on this issue and it’s not for me to resist the fact that we are now in a situation in Canada where we’re going to have assisted dying. From February of next year, it’s going to be permissible.