Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The fictions WE DIE BY

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Most baby boomers will not die on the golf course. Nobody lives forever. Some people reading this article probably believe Elvis is still alive -- or that they'll have a second chance as a zombie. A lot of young people these days fantasize about becoming immortal vampires (personally, I wouldn't want that hickey).

Why are these fictions so popular? Perhaps it's because people do not wish to talk about, or think about, the one thing we all have in common -- that we are all going to die someday.

On Thursday, I introduced two bills in the House of Commons that deal with physician-assisted death. Our Criminal Code (Section 241b) makes no allowance for any form of assisted suicide -- although, oddly enough, suicide itself is legal in Canada.

For people who are bed-bound, terminally ill, suffering and in pain, there's no legal way out. Many people in these situations end up simply starving themselves to death -- a process that can take at least a month and merely compounds their suffering. This method of suicide is legal in Canada and is practised far more than many of us would expect, as are morphine overdoses.

People who suffer the pain and confinement of serious, incurable illnesses are prisoners of their own bodies. Sue Rodriguez was dying slowly of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) when she took her plea for assisted suicide to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1993, the court ruled five-four against her. When her time came, however, this courageous woman took her life, and the law, into her own hands and went ahead with her assisted suicide -- under the table and out of sight.

The two bills that I've introduced in Parliament will, if they are implemented, go a long way toward giving individuals the power to decide how they will meet their last moments. In short, the bill would allow for physician-assisted death for people who meet the statutory requirements:

-- Being 18 years of age or older;

-- Being a citizen or permanent resident of Canada as of the date of the request;

-- Having been diagnosed by a physician with an illness, a disease or a disability (including disability arising from traumatic injury) that causes intolerable physical or psychological suffering that cannot be alleviated by any medical treatment acceptable to that person, or;

-- Being in a state of weakening capacity with no chance of improvement and being of sound mind and capable of fully understanding the information provided to him or her under other sections of the law.

There are further safeguards in the bill to ensure the person making the request is placed under no pressure to choose physician-assisted death. Provisions in the bill would ensure anyone with a vested interest, or in a position to benefit from a physician-assisted death, is not the one making the decision. The bill includes safeguards to satisfy society's need to make sure vulnerable people are not being exploited.

The fact the first quadriplegic and the first paraplegic (NDP MP Manon Perreault) elected to Parliament tabled and seconded each of these bills should, I think, provide further assurance to those who worry about the 'slippery slope.' That the two people who are actually using wheelchairs in Parliament (and work on opposite sides of the aisle) can agree on this type of legislation speaks volumes about the need to have this debate in non-partisan manner.

The first bill deals directly with physician-assisted death. The second bill would create a Canadian commission to compile non-identifying information about physician-assisted death, including (but not limited to), information about those requesting it -- including age, sex, marital status, education level, income level, medical condition and reasons for seeking assistance. The commission would collect and analyze data from the completed forms, make available to the public an annual statistical report of information collected under this act, commission research based on patient medical record reviews, and make recommendations to the attorney general about potential law and policy reforms.

Later this year, the Supreme Court will be looking at two cases very similar to the Sue Rodriguez case. I believe in the supremacy of Parliament in the creation of law; an issue that touches Canadians at such a personal level should be debated in Parliament.

Introducing these bills may not trigger that debate, as none of the parties particularly wants to talk about it. The public, however, wants the debate to start -- and most Canadians agree that physician-assisted death should be available, with the proper safeguards.

It is impossible to know, but I'll make a bold prediction right here and say the Supreme Court is likely to strike down the law as it stands. These two bills could serve as a framework for a parliamentary consensus -- a classic Canadian compromise that would improve the quality of life, and death, for every Canadian.


Steven Fletcher is MP for Charleswood-St James Assiniboia-Headingley. He has been wheelchair-bound since an auto accident in 1996.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2014 A1

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