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Steering clear of assisted suicide

Most politicians reluctant to reopen debate

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Despite moving pleas from the Winnipeg-born doctor who guided Toronto through the SARS crisis and a Manitoba MP who has bucked his party on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide, few in the province are willing to reopen the touchy debate.

The Manitoba government continues to take no position on the issue. Local medical and physicians' organizations offered little insight Wednesday, and most Manitoba MPs favour the status quo, which bars doctors from hastening the death of terminally ill patients.

Susan Griffiths, 72, died last April after an assisted suicide at a Switzerland clinic.

The Winnipeg woman had suffered from multiple systems atrophy, a rare, incurable brain disease. Rather than endure a slow death, she chose an assisted suicide in Zurich.

It has been 20 years this month since Winnipeg-born ALS-sufferer Sue Rodriguez narrowly lost her Supreme Court battle that could have legalized doctor-assisted suicide, and the debate has rarely waned since then. It was rekindled earlier this week when another Winnipegger, well-known Toronto SARS doctor Donald Low, made a plea just days before his death that terminal patients be allowed to die with dignity. That prompted Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia MP Steven Fletcher, who has been flexing his independence since he was dropped from cabinet over the summer, to repeat, in notably stronger language, his support for doctor-assisted suicide. Fletcher is a quadriplegic.

His views are at odds with his government's. A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Peter MacKay quickly responded Tuesday saying the government has no intention of reopening the debate on assisted suicide.

That was, word for word, the response from several Manitoba Tory MPs Wednesday.

"As the minister of justice has already commented, our government has no intention of reopening the debate on assisted suicide," said an email statement from Kildonan-St. Paul MP Joy Smith's office. "I believe that the laws surrounding euthanasia and assisted suicide exist to protect all Canadians, including those who are most vulnerable."

A spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, the province's regional minister, said the same.

"Our government has no intention of reopening up the debate," she said in an email.

Winnipeg South Centre Conservative MP Joyce Bateman emailed a similar statement.

But others, including one Tory MP, offered more personal reflections on the matter.

Robert Sopuck, Tory MP for Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette, said he has researched the issue and, though he feels tremendous sympathy for people struggling with terminal illness, the evidence from other countries where the practice is legal gives him pause. Legalizing assisted suicide can create an industry of suicide tourism, and it could be used by people without terminal diseases who simply want to end their lives or by unscrupulous relatives to hasten the death of an elderly person.

"There's an old saying among lawyers -- hard cases make bad laws," said Sopuck. "There are enough grey areas, enough unanswered questions and enough evidence from the countries where assisted suicide is legal that I would not support it."

Winnipeg North Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux said his mind is not closed on the issue, but he would be very uncomfortable voting for a euthanasia bill, especially without thorough research and consultations with his riding.

And, Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin reiterated his opposition to the idea, a position he's held for about a decade. During the debate in the early 1990s sparked by Rodriguez, Martin said he favoured some form of physician-assisted suicide, but since then he's had long discussions with two caucus members who have disabled children, and they have changed his mind.

The Manitoba government has no position on doctor-assisted suicide, though Justice Minister Andrew Swan has said, on a personal level, a dialogue on the issue is worthwhile.

-- with files from Kevin Rollason

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2013 A11

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