Andrew Lemeuw in Toronto asks: “When will the law change with the new decriminalization of doctor-assisted deaths? The Globe’s justice reporter Sean Fine, who covered the historic Supreme Court ruling, has the answer:
No later than Feb. 6, 2016.
The Supreme Court of Canada gave the government of Canada one year to draft new laws, if it wishes, to govern physician-assisted death. In a legal sense, Parliament could just do nothing; politically, though, that is highly unlikely, as the Conservative government would be seen as abdicating its duty to Canadians.
If Parliament approves no new law on assisted death by next February 6th, the law would change on that date to permit assisted dying for some suffering adults. This is a very serious right — control over one’s life covering what the court called “the passage into the death.” It can’t be held back by government inaction. Government can’t limit this right more than the court will allow.
The government has not publicly said whether it will introduce and try to pass a new law before the election. “This is a sensitive issue for many Canadians, with deeply held beliefs on both sides,” Clarissa Lamb, a spokeswoman for the federal Justice Department, said in an email. “We will thoroughly and thoughtfully study the Supreme Court’s decision . . . and ensure all perspectives on this difficult issue are heard. We will consult widely with Canadians and review the decision comprehensively before deciding how to respond.”
The Supreme Court set the parameters for any new law on physician-assisted death for ill people, and they are wide. They do not just cover the terminally ill. And “intolerable” suffering needs to be seen through the eyes of the ill individual. This group includes those who are suffering psychologically. The court said that the assisted-suicide laws currently on the books will not be considered valid “to the extent that they prohibit physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life and (2) has 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.”
Provincial governments, too, may wish to draft laws on assisted dying, since health care is a shared responsibility with Ottawa. Quebec already has drafted one such law, which was almost certain to be found unconstitutional if the court had upheld the Criminal Code provisions on assisted suicide; the constitution bars provinces from legislating in areas covered by the criminal law, which is exclusively federal jurisdiction. As it is, the Quebec law on assisted death would likely run afoul of the Supreme Court ruling, in that it applies only to the terminally ill.
The February 6, 2016 deadline poses a challenge for the federal government, as summer recess is coming and an election is expected next October. Some had suggested the Justice Department would ask the court for an extension, but that seems highly unlikely, and it is not difficult to imagine how the court would treat such a request.
Follow Sean Fine on Twitter , read the Globe’s editorial on the Supreme Court decision, and the Globe Debate column: Next step in assisted suicide: Ensuring it can be done humanely