Vancouver BC — Pavel Reid, director of the Office of Life and Family with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, is convinced that the legalization of assisted suicide will be the next major issue facing Canada’s faith community.
“The people who are supposed to follow these issues most closely for the pro-life movement have been telling us, ‘Oh yeah, this is it. This is the one,'” he says.
What has Reid and others so alarmed is the government’s mild response to C-407, a private member’s bill introduced in June by Bloc Quebecois Member of Parliament (MP) Francine Lalonde.
It would protect “medical practitioners” who helped hasten the death of someone as young as 17 who was either terminally ill or had no hope of relief from severe pain, who “[appeared] to be lucid,” and who had clearly stated at least twice a “free and informed” wish to die.
Pro-lifers are appalled at the bill’s vagueness. Vancouver physician and surgeon Will Johnston, who co-chairs the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition of BC, calls it “a virtual licence to kill in almost any circumstance.”
While not endorsing the bill, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has suggested that perhaps it is time MPs debate the issue.
“[The government has] been really soft-gloving it. That indicates that they’re willing to support it,” says Reid, who believes it is urgent that Canadians opposed to assisted suicide begin now to make their views known.
“We can’t wait. The timeline is maybe a year — or less. We need to be better organized and unified. We need to hire professionals. We need to be better funded.”
But others doubt that C-407 poses such an imminent threat.
“I would be very surprised,” says Laurie Beachall, national coordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, “if any government [would] put this on a legislative agenda in the current context, where we are facing an election within probably five months.”
Pro-life Liberal MP Paul Steckle says that even if the bill did come to a vote this fall, it would likely be defeated.
“Given that it’s been brought forward by the Bloc, probably we would see the majority in the House opposing it,” he says. “That’s not a good reason, but that may be the reason that people would choose [to defeat it].”
The Justice Department also denies any desire to champion assisted suicide.
“When the minister mentioned a role for parliamentary debate, he was talking about a ‘take note’ debate,” Denise Rudnicki, Cotler’s communications director, told Maclean’s. “Parliamentarians will take an issue and thrash it out in a debate, but there’s no vote.”
But Johnston suspects that Cotler is at least philosophically inclined to give Canadians the “right” to choose when and how they die.
“Irwin Cotler,” he says, “has such a single-minded focus on individual rights that he’s lost a vision of community … the problem is the ruling elite seems so detached from the real needs of the nation that all bets are off.”
Steckle also concedes that “sometime we’re going to have to deal with” legalizing euthanasia.
Whenever the issue does surface, Reid says preventing the legalization of euthanasia could depend on the stance taken by people of faith.
“The main thing is being very careful and disciplined in the way that the message is put forth, framing it as a patients’ rights issue and a medical issue,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there, particularly in the media, who are reactive to anything that the Church has to say.”
Johnston says pro-lifers also need to expose the lie that death is the only option to relieving pain.
“Although there is a broad superficial support for the idea of people being allowed to be killed if they’re in unbearable pain,” he says, “the whole concept is based on a general public ignorance of the ability of palliative care to relieve almost all suffering.”
A survey by Pollara done two years ago found that 49 per cent of Canadians supported legalizing assisted suicide and 37 per cent were opposed. Thirteen per cent were undecided.