It sometimes seems that the only politicians with the will to address divisive ethical issues such as the one posed by the Robert Latimer trial are those who have been touched by tough, terrible dilemmas themselves. New Democrat MP Svend Robinson sits in a near-deserted House of Commons lobby and speaks softly of the suffering of now-dead friends, telling how their agony during the late stages of terminal illnesses pushed him to lead a campaign for legalizing doctor-assisted suicides. “I remember a sick friend in Ottawa, pointing to a bridge and telling me: ‘If I knew it was going to be like this, I would have jumped when I had the chance,’ ” says Robinson. “Of course my motivation comes from my own experiences.”
Down the corridor, in her office across from a Senate chamber that often resounds with irrelevant debates, Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs describes the satisfaction of participating in the “incredible exercise” that was the Senate’s 1995 study into euthanasia and assisted suicide.
She, too, sees the ethical questions as much more than an academic policy discussion. Carstairs speaks bravely and eloquently of the wrenching choices she faced— twice—over how much treatment to seek when her father, and then her mother, fell terminally ill within six months of each other in the early 1980s. “This is what’s happening out there, in homes, in hospitals, every day,” she says. “It is a tough issue for politicians to deal with.
But it’s not going to go away.”
Yet amid the anguished cross-country reaction to Latimer’s sentence last week, anyone looking to Ottawa for guidance—or even a sympathetic ear—was left disheartened. Justice Minister Anne McLellan said she was prepared to “consider” Criminal Code changes to let juries recommend lenient sentencing for second-degree murder in special circumstances. But the Liberal government was not prepared to orchestrate a broader debate on doctor-assisted suicide or euthanasia. In fact, McLellan said, Canadians should first debate such “deeply complicated moral and ethical issues” at home and among friends.
At best, McLellan’s suggestion ignores the increasing frequency with which Canadians already grapple with these tragic choices— either in their own lives or as observers of highly publicized court cases. And it is a far cry from the free vote in Parliament that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien promised the nation almost four years ago. “But there was no clear path, no consensus, and we feared it would badly split the caucus,” a senior Liberal aide explained last week. An Angus Reid Group poll last month found 76 per cent of respondents in favor of allowing people to choose death over painful terminal illness—but the consensus disappears when they consider specific conditions that would call for assisted suicides.
Robinson calls the Liberals’ retreat from a free vote “a shameful abdication of leadership.” He was present at the 1994 suicide of Sue Rodriguez, a Saanich, B.C., woman who suffered from a crippling neurological disorder. “The questions she posed around her death
The Liberals have backed away from a free vote on euthanasia
remain unanswered by this House of Commons,” Robinson complained last week. In an attempt to keep the political debate alive, he introduced a private members’ bill last month that would create a special committee to review laws governing euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicides. The bill will likely come to a vote next spring, but McLellan has already signalled the government’s aversion to reopening the issue. “Let’s face it, governments don’t act, they react,” says Carstairs. “Governments did not deal with
abortion until Morgentaler forced it on them. And, sad as it sounds, we might not have had gun control were it not for 14 young women getting shot in Montreal.”
Carstairs points out that the only right-to-die legislation in North America, in Oregon, resulted from a referendum that gave the state government the backbone to act. The Latimer case alone will not generate enough political heat for Ottawa to move, she predicts. “There will have to be more cases,” says Carstairs, “with more Canadians saying: ‘Hey, do something about this.’ ”
Trailing public opinion is no way for Ottawa to engage Canadians in an era when so many voters see politicians slipping into irrelevancy. Last week, Reform MP Ken Epp told MPs how his 52-year-old sister, Marian, born with cerebral palsy and unable to speak, loves to sing along when he plays hymns on the piano at home. “Some would say her life is not worthwhile,” he told the hushed Commons, “but I profoundly disagree.” Among them, Epp, Carstairs and Robinson showed that, at its best, Parliament remains an appropriate place to air sensitive issues.
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