Watch: Conservative MP Steven Fletcher says the government has to pass legislation to clear up legal ambiguities with physician-assisted suicide.
OTTAWA — The Supreme Court of Canada placed the ball squarely in Parliament’s court when its nine justices unanimously struck down the nation’s long-standing laws against physician-assisted suicide.
The Conservative majority in the House of Commons and Senate, of course, means Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s caucus can hold the most influence over translating the court’s decision into law, but not everyone in the party sees eye to eye on the issue.
There is a socially conservative wing within the Conservative caucus that has long opposed the notion of assisted suicide. But that faction won’t have more influence than the one that believes in empowering individuals, said Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who has spent years lobbying to make assisted suicide legal.
“We have a lot of people who believe … the state shouldn’t be involved in people’s lives,” the Manitoba MP, the first quadriplegic to serve in the House of Commons.
“People who have that view, and the social conservative point of view [both have] legitimate points of view.”
If the government wanted to go against the court’s ruling it could invoke the notwithstanding clause, a section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allowing federal or provincial governments to override judicial rulings on the Charter.
The majority of provinces and the federal legislature have never invoked that privilege, and Fletcher said he doesn’t expect this ruling to be any different.
Leaving that option off the table, the government has two others: do nothing, or draft legislation.
Doing nothing would mean Canada would no longer have any laws specifically prohibiting physician-assisted suicide nor, though, would it have any specific laws governing it, similar to the country’s abortion laws.
“I think there needs to be some law that would codify some of the ambiguities that may exist,” said Fletcher. “One cannot just leave it open, I don’t think, because if someone is assisted in death and they didn’t give consent, that is breaking the law and that is murder. And nothing changes that.”
Whether Parliament is able to draft and pass any laws before the next election, currently scheduled for eight months from now, remains uncertain. If the government doesn’t whip up something the other parties rally behind, the next Parliament will have to hurry; the Supreme Court imposed a one-year limit for government to pass a physician-assisted suicide bill into law.
WATCH: The Conservatives wasted time on the issue, now Parliament is pressed for time to develop assisted-suicide legislation, New Democrat Charlie Angus says.
“I think the government could have taken the lead, and has lost a lot of ground. We knew this decision was coming,” said New Democrat Charlie Angus, who was opposed to assisted suicide. “This is a complicated set of issues … We need to do this right.”
What concerns Angus, he said, is if the matter becomes a campaign issue, the Conservatives might push for legislation that pleases a certain part of their base.
Conservative MP Brad Trost, who was also opposed to the notion of physician-assisted suicide, said he suspects the government will “pull together” some sort of legislation, but that won’t be the end of it.
WATCH: Conservative MP Brad Trost says Friday’s ruling is just the beginning of another long battle on the issue of physician-assisted suicide.
“I suspect someone else is going to bring that back to court again in a couple of more years, and we may go through two or three iterations of this,” he said. “The court reversed its opinions of 20 years ago, and who knows what the court will rule again in 20 years when this comes up again.”
As Parliament looks to draft legislation, though, Trost said he believes many Canadians, including those who support the Supreme Court’s decision, would “feel comfortable with the tightest possible restrictions and the strongest possible safeguards.”
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