May 31, 2016

Bill C-14, known as the medical assistance in dying bill, is currently working its way through the legislative process en route to becoming law by June 6, the deadline given to the federal government by the Supreme Court of Canada. The debate over this piece of legislation has gone back and forth, both in the House of Commons and the rest of the country, with the end result so far being a nation divided over the difficult-to-answer question, “Should an individual be allowed to end their own life with the help of a doctor, and if so, under what conditions?

The History

Efforts to decriminalize doctor-assisted suicide have been on-going in Canada since the early 1990s, with five private members’ bills being brought forward in 1992, 2005, 2009 and 2014, none of which made it into law.

However, the events we have seen unfolding in Parliament now can be traced to 2012, when B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith ruled Canada’s then-current laws on doctor-assisted suicide to be unconstitutional on the basis they were discriminatory against physically-disabled people. The federal government appealed this ruling to the B.C. Court of Appeal, where in 2013 a split decision affirmed the law against assisted suicide, which was appealed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 2015, the Supreme Court heard the BCCLA’s appeal and unanimously overturned the ban on doctor-assisted suicide, ruling the law needed to allow for doctors to intervene in certain situations. The court gave the federal government one year to enact a new law, which was extended by four months to June 6, 2016 after the Liberals were elected to power.

The New Law

Under Bill C-14, the new law on doctor-assisted suicide would lay out the following requirements, conditions and protections:

Access is restricted to mentally competent adults who have a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability, who are “suffering intolerably” and for whom death is “reasonably foreseeable.”

Vulnerable people are protected from being encouraged to die “in moments of weakness”

A mandatory 15-day “reflection period” to prevent a rash decision after a diagnosis

Allow doctors and nurses to provide assisted suicide without risk of criminal charges

Despite a special parliamentary committee’s recommendations, the following were NOT incorporated into bill C-14, though the Justice Minister has said the restrictions will be studied more in the future:

Patients have the right to make an “advance request” for doctor-assisted suicide after being diagnosed with certain debilitating, but not necessarily terminal conditions

Assisted suicide should not be limited to physical conditions – those with psychiatric conditions should be allowed access to end suffering

Considering in three years to extend the right to doctor-assisted suicide to “mature minors”

Why is this important to The Navigators?

As followers of Jesus, we are called to show love and bring hope to the despondent and downtrodden, wherever and whoever they may be, the same as Jesus did.

When we’re confronted with the issue of doctor-assisted suicide, it’s difficult to discern the right course of action. It can seem cruel and inhumane to keep someone alive as they suffer through an increasingly painful and debilitating disease or condition, especially if the person has already expressed a desire to die on their own terms. Our society has also made advancements in palliative care, enabling medical professionals to manage terminal diseases and illnesses so an individual can live well in their last days.

These two responses have created a division between people over the best way to alleviate suffering: either to facilitate the individual’s death or minimize their pain to give them a better quality of life before they die naturally.

As Navigators, our response to this difficult question and situation is in line with the palliative approach. We believe every person has dignity and is to be valued, not a burden or drain on resources but an individual created in the image of God to fulfill a significant and important purpose.

In the face of an incurable and debilitating disease, there still remains an opportunity for love and grace to be expressed in community. The palliative approach allows the opportunity for relationships to be healed, for last good-byes to be said and for others in their community to show their love.

One of our board members is Dr. Sheila Harding, who recently appeared on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup episode on the assisted dying legislation. From 49:25 to the 1:00:00 mark, she discusses the risk of normalizing assisted suicide, the effect it could have on vulnerable patients and the value of palliative care in easing suffering.

How does this affect me?

At this point, Bill C-14 is still being circulated through the legislative process. As a citizen, the most important action you can take is to educate yourself about this issue and speak up if and when you feel led to. Whether it’s correcting someone’s understanding of the bill and issue or contacting your MP to voice your views and concerns, this is too important an issue not to act on.

We urge you to learn more about this issue and then join the conversation to make your voice heard, however you feel led.


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