Open Senate Liberal caucus takes on assisted suicide

By Andrew Cardozo

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How do you deal with a controversial, delicate and emotional issue in Parliament?  In caucus?  In public?

A closed caucus meeting no more.  How about an open caucus meeting?  The Senate Liberals came up with the innovate idea of (i) having open Caucus meetings and (ii) having each meeting focused on a particular high-profile topic where they invite guests from the outside world (or the real world) with noted expertise or interest.  Innovative and senate are usually not in the same sentence but here it was for all to see – and it’s open.

This is one of the interesting reforms the Liberals senators – the senators who are Liberals – instituted after their relationship with Liberal MPS was ended in February of this year. A more open Senate!  Under the leadership of Senate Opposition Leader James Cowan, these sessions are coordinated by Toronto Senator Art Eggleton with earlier meetings having covered autism and missing and murdered Aboriginal women. While the government refuses to call an enquiry on the latter subject, the Liberal senators seemed to do their bit.

Assisted suicide was the topic April 13.  Member of Parliament Stephen Fletcher was a leading voice on one end of the spectrum, having introduced two private member’s bills on the subject. In favour of it, with safeguards of course. On the other end was the disability movement which included experienced and much respected lawyer David Baker.   

Fletcher indicated that his bills are far down the list and the only hope for them to get voted on in the House is for the Senate to vote on them at an early opportunity, and send them to the House. There was an appetite among some senators, but after they heard from the disability movement, there was more caution.   

This is not an easy issue, not by a long stretch.  How the line gets drawn between a justified assisted suicide (to coin a term) and an unjustified one of a person say, who is profoundly disabled, or has a serious illness and cannot articulate  their wishes – that is the conundrum.  

Can an adult of sound mind be able to choose the time and manner of their death? On the face of it many would say, Yes. But who is to determine whether a person is really of sound mind? What if a person is going through a period of depression? What about a person who is not articulate because of the disability or illness they are faced with? What about a child or teenager who is in profound pain or illness – why can’t they be included? These are just a few questions.  

In an emotional comment, Senator Serge Joyal revealed that he felt he participated in the assisted suicide of his mother while she was in palliative care because he passively agreed to liquids being withheld while morphine being increased to “keep her comfortable”. This is a very common occurrence.  

Likewise a “do not resuscitate” order placed by the medical staff or family was the same as an order to allow – or assist – death.  

An issue more complex than appeared at the start of the meeting.   

Also see Julie van Dusen’s tweet:

https://twitter.com/JULIEVANDUSEN/status/466587573469872128/photo/1

Andrew Cardozo is president of the Canadian Centre

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