Mixed responses to assisted-dying bill

The recently-tabled legislation governing assisted dying has met with very mixed reactions among Anglicans and the broader Canadian public. Photo: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock
The recently-tabled legislation governing assisted dying has met with very mixed reactions among Anglicans and the broader Canadian public. Photo: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock
Published April 19, 2016

While the government has now tabled legislation to clarify the laws around doctor-assisted dying, responses from some members of the Anglican Church of Canada’s task force on assisted dying show that the church-and Canadian society-remain divided about how widely this measure should be.

Canon Eric Beresford, the ethicist who chairs the task force, said he felt the government “tried very hard to balance a number of things,” and commended the decision to exclude children from the purview of the act. Another member of the task force, however, suggested its restrictiveness is a problem.

Juliet Guichon, a lawyer and assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s school of medicine, argued that in its current form the bill is simply not constitutional.

“What the government has done is it has made the class [of people eligible for assisted dying] more narrow than the court [did]-in other words, the government is restricting the rights of Canadians,” she said. By limiting assisted dying to those whose deaths are “reasonably foreseeable,” the government is not abiding by the Supreme Court ruling, which did not require that a person be close to approaching death to be eligible, said Guichon.

Bill C-14 was crafted in response to Carter v. Canada, the landmark Supreme Court decision in February 2015, which struck down as unconstitutional the laws prohibiting physician-assisted dying.

The court gave the Canadian government 12 months (later extended to 16 months) to craft legislation governing the circumstances in which medically assisted death could happen. This period will end June 6, which leaves just seven weeks for the bill to pass through the House of Commons and the Senate.

But in the days since the bill was tabled, proponents of assisted dying have argued that it doesn’t go far enough.

In a statement posted to its website April 14, the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), one of the plaintiffs in Carter v. Canada, argued that the bill “leaves out entire categories of suffering Canadians who should have a right to choose a safe and dignified assisted death.”

The proposed legislation limits assisted dying to adults who are suffering intolerably from a “serious and incurable illness, disease or disability,” are in an “advanced state of irreversible decline in capability” and whose natural death has become “reasonably foreseeable.” Critics argued that it fails to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling that assisted dying should be available to anyone suffering from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”

In an irony that Guichon was quick to point out, under the current legislation, Kathleen “Kay” Carter-the plaintiff under whose name the Carter decision was brought-may not have been eligible to receive medical assistance in dying.

“Carter did not have a condition that both caused her suffering and would cause her death,” she explained. “The condition [spinal stenosis] caused her intolerable suffering, but it was not a condition that was going to lead to her death in the near future.”

The vagueness of the term “reasonable foreseeability” has also raised the ire of the BCCLA and assisted-dying rights group Dying with Dignity.

While it has its roots in tort and contract law, Guichon admitted to being puzzled by how the legal idea of “reasonable foreseeability” was being applied in this case.

“How do you define foreseeability?” she asked. “When you are holding your newborn infant in your arms, you don’t want to think about it, but it is reasonably foreseeable that they will die.”

However, while the question of who can, and who should, have access to assisted dying remains a hotly debated issue, the government’s promise to spend $3 billion over the next five years for home care and expanded palliative care was received positively by various quarters.

Beresford-who has, in the past, been quite critical of Canada’s provision of palliative care-said the announcement was “wonderful news,” and suggested that with assisted dying now an option, strong palliative care is more important than ever.

“One of the things that the task group said throughout was that without some real commitment to palliative care, providing the option of physician-assisted dying wasn’t providing a choice,” he said. “If we really wanted to be serious about providing choice, then we needed to put our money where our mouth was, and make sure that palliative care…was an option.”

While it is not yet clear how exactly the money will be spent, Health Minister Jane Philpott said this will be decided in consultation with the provinces, under whose jurisdiction health care lies.

In the meantime, Beresford said the assisted dying task force should help keep Anglicans focused on the underlying issues.

“Our role as Anglicans within that world is to continue to ask the question of how does this broadening constitute care or not?” he said. “Is it really an expression of care for the suffering individual, [or] does it actually have the impact of making the individual vulnerable?”

It is expected that the report of the task force will be released as soon as an accompanying study guide is completed.

Meanwhile, some Anglicans posted their comments about the bill on Facebook.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Bill C-14 as the ‘Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act.


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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