Latimer: Senate helpful in assisted dying debacle

Columnist Paul Latimer says he was disappointed with the federal government's Bill C-14.

Over the past couple of years our Senate has rightly been under a lot of public scrutiny.

We’ve had seemingly endless media coverage of expense controversy, criticism of the Senate’s entrenched partisanship, and many calls to abolish this house of ‘sober second thought’ all together.

Finally, there has been some activity in the Senate that has given me hope and a renewed sense of encouragement about its role in our country.

When our federal government tabled Bill C-14 in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Carter v Canada on assisted dying, I was very disappointed.

The bill is much more restrictive than the Supreme Court’s decision and gives too narrow a set of circumstances under which individuals may request physician assistance in dying.

The way Bill C-14 is written, individuals must be mentally competent adults with a serious, incurable illness, disease or disability. They must be in “an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability” and their “natural death” must be “reasonably foreseeable”. In its current form, this bill is not only disappointing but will almost certainly be challenged on constitutional grounds if it is passed.

Recently, the Senate has also reacted negatively to the bill – voting to delete its central requirement that only those near death would be eligible. Senators would replace this with the criteria set out in the Carter decision.

I am very encouraged by this. There are many people with serious, chronic illness, including mental illness, who suffer horribly but may not meet the stringent criteria in the originally proposed legislation.

Many of these people, having exhausted all available treatment options, commit suicide alone and unsupported as their only means of escape. For others, they are left to simply suffer unbearably – sometimes for decades.

In the case of psychiatric disorders – they are not always treatable. Some people remain very ill, miserably unhappy, isolated and often abandoned by their families and communities despite their best efforts.

I hear quite frequently from such people that they want to die, wish they were dead and are constantly thinking about suicide as an option. When all reasonable, conventional treatments have been tried and failed, a competent individual in this position should have physician assisted dying as an option. Under the current C-14, this would not be possible.

The autonomy of the individual is paramount. It is not up to society to determine who has to live or die, for how long and under what circumstances.

Many polls have documented that Canadians support this position, the Supreme Court has already supported it, and the government should draft legislation that is consistent with these wishes.

For now, our government is saying the legislation need not comply with the Carter ruling – a stance that seems unsupportable to me. My hope is that government takes the advice of Senate as it moves forward with its legislation.

This is exactly the kind of situation in which some sober second thought could prove very useful and save a lot more unnecessary suffering and legal wrangling.


Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.


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