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Where federal parties stand on physician-assisted death

Life's two great certainties are emerging as election issues: taxes, because of the technical recession, and death, because the population is aging. The economy will affect more people, but old people vote and they want to know where the warring political parties stand on implementing the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling on physician-assisted death (PAD).

A Forum poll released on Aug. 28 pegged support for PAD for terminally ill patients at 77 per cent, across all political affiliations; Compass ranked PAD as 10 out of 30 on a list of election questions and Ipsos marked it as a top-five election issue in a poll in late July.

Quebec, which will roll out its medical-aid-in-dying program before the end of the year, is the only part of the country that has an action plan. Last month, the rest of the provinces and territories joined an Ontario-driven commission to explore options, but the federal government has been reluctant, to put it mildly, to engage the implications of the Supreme Court's February ruling in Regina v. Carter, which will decriminalize assisted suicide in less than six months.

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The Conservatives did appoint a three-member consultative panel in the middle of July – two of whom were government witnesses opposed to PAD at the B.C. Supreme Court in the Carter challenge – but, after the election was called on Aug. 2, suspended the panel's ability to engage with stakeholders until after the votes are counted in the Oct. 19 election.

So where do the four federal parties stand? Here's a synopsis, along with a grading by Wanda Morris, CEO of Dying with Dignity (DWD), the country's leading lobby group to promote choice in dying. DWD asked each of the four parties for their policy statements. Only the NDP and the Liberals replied, but Ms. Morris gives the Green Party credit for having posted its policy on its website. "Nobody has committed to making the February deadline," Ms. Morris noted in an interview, "which leaves patients and doctors in limbo."

Conservatives (D-)

The party gets minus points for moving from "inaction to obstruction." It does not have a position on its website and it didn't respond to the DWD's request for a position. The closest the Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper have come to a legislative response to the Supreme Court ruling is a blanket statement, repeated again last week in response to a CTV request, following the release of the Forum poll. "This is a sensitive issue for many Canadians, with deeply held beliefs on both sides. We will study the decision and consult widely with all perspectives on this difficult issue."

The Conservatives have released an online Issues Book from its recently announced consultative panel seeking responses to a series of scenarios, many of which don't accord with the Court's ruling. Morris calls them alarmist and fear mongering.

The Conservatives need only look to its own back bench for a legislative response. Manitoba MP Steven Fletcher has introduced at least two private-member's bills calling for amendments to the Criminal Code, the establishment of a national oversight commission and strict safeguards to protect the vulnerable while allowing competent adults to seek a doctor's help in dying. The bills have died on the order paper, but Mr. Fletcher, a quadriplegic, this summer published Master of My Fate, a book about his own life choices after a catastrophic collision with a moose on a remote highway in 1996. He thinks Canadians should quiz candidates on their positions on PAD before making ballot decisions. "They'll talk about it if people ask, and the best time to ask is during an election," he told The Canadian Press late last month.

NDP (A-)

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Ms. Morris gives the party top marks for "respecting the Court's decision, embedding assisted dying into the health-care system and considering access issues across the country," and awards bonus points for identifying the Conservative's inaction in Parliament and its "flawed consultation process." If elected, the NDP says it will make access to palliative care a "priority," take "immediate steps to implement" the Court's decision "swiftly with balance, respect and sensitivity," and "draw upon" the "highly effective, consensual and broadly supported process undertaken by the Quebec government." While it doesn't commit to making the Court's deadline, the NDP does say that Parliament needs to hear from all Canadians to "ensure that rights and safeguards are applied equally across Canada" in order to "protect the vulnerable without creating unreasonable barriers for individuals seeking access to dying with dignity."

Liberals (B+)

Leader Justin Trudeau publicly affirmed the Court's decision in February as "the right thing to do," so Ms. Morris gives him points for his "personal support" and his respect for the Charter, but the party statement isn't as strong as the NDP's, in her view. "Good for the Liberals," she says in promising "an all-party special committee" to consult experts and gather the views of Canadians in order to come up with recommendations for a legislative framework. The process seems long-term and she can't see how it can result in timely legislation.

Greens (B)

The party didn't respond to the DWD request for a position, but Leader Elizabeth May gets points for being proactive on the issue, for endorsing Conservative MP Steven Fletcher's two private-member's bills and for posting the party's policy on its website. It supports amendments to the Criminal Code to allow "adults with full mental capacity" who are "in situations of terminal illness and who find their situation intolerable," to ask doctors for help in dying. The party will "remain vigilant" against allowing anybody to make "such a decision" for anybody else. The party loses points, however, for not updating its position in accord with the Court's decision, which didn't stipulate "terminally ill" in its list of conditions.

Follow me on Twitter: @semartin71

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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