VANCOUVER — The federal government’s assisted dying law won’t be in place in time for the Supreme Court’s Monday deadline, but a Vancouver doctor is ready to start assisting patients who have been waiting for months.
Hanne Schafer was allowed to end her life with the help of a doctor, after living with the debilitating symptoms of ALS. The Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta granted the woman, who had been confined to a wheelchair and who had lost her ability to speak, a constitutional exemption on Feb. 29, allowing her to become the first person — outside of Quebec — to choose to die with medical assistance. Schafer was able to end her life that same day in Vancouver, with the help of Dr. Ellen Wiebe.
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Schafer’s case was highly publicized, but her name was protected by a court ordered publication ban, even preventing her family from even publishing an obituary after she died. She was referred to as Ms. S in media reports until the publication ban was eventually lifted. Wiebe was referred to as Dr. W.
There was sensitivity surrounding the case, as she was granted her request to die on her own terms before the federal government had come up with its legal framework for assisted dying in this country.
The Liberal government has been rushing to meet a Supreme Court of Canada imposed June 6 deadline to craft a new law on medically assisted death. Even though Bill C-41 passed third reading in the House of Commons May 31 and second reading in the Senate Friday, the politicians will miss the deadline. The Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs is not due to reconvene until Tuesday.
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That means, as of Monday, there will be no law in place prohibiting medically assisted death.
Since helping Schafer die, Wiebe has had others approach her asking for help, and now has five people who’ve gone through the process of getting a court exemption. They are waiting for her to help them die.
“There are some that we have booked for this week,” she said.
Without a federal law, Wiebe will follow the guidelines spelled out in last year’s Supreme Court ruling, plus the regulations put in place by the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons.
She’s hoping that other doctors are thinking the same way.
“This is a basic human right that Canadians have,” Wiebe told Global News in an interview at her Vancouver office. “And yet they can’t access it unless there’s a provider willing to do it. So I’m hoping that some doctors may realize that it is good work and that it’s something they can do to help the patients.”
Wiebe thinks the Supreme Court decision in the Carter vs. Canada case laid out almost everything that needs to happen in order to allow Canadians to choose to end their suffering and to die with dignity.
“The only thing I was missing from there was protection for pharmacists and nurses,” she said. It’s their governing bodies that need the government to lay out what the law is.
“They apparently need a law,” she said. “We have no law for abortion and we do a good job.”
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“I’m hoping that the colleges… in every province and territory that have to deal with this, will realize that it’s important they protect their members and support them through this process.”
Wiebe realizes this is an issue that some people have strong feelings about.
“I talked to my colleagues in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, and Oregon. They have been working under these laws for decades,” she said. “They still have some of the same issues. There are still people in each of those places that are against it.”
But looking back 10 years from now, she thinks the conversation about medically assisted dying will have changed.
“By then, most people will have had a family member die by assisted death. And, then the whole discourse will be different.”
Dawna Friesen and Rohit Joseph contributed to this report