A Toronto doctor who once likened assisted dying to Nazi genocide has been put in charge of a federally mandated process to determine whether Canadians should be able to make advance requests for medical help to end their lives.
The appointment of Harvey Schipper to chair a working group of experts who will examine the issue is raising doubts about the impartiality of the process and the federal government's commitment to seriously consider expanding its restrictive law on assisted dying.
Advance requests was one of three major issues left unresolved last year when the government passed legislation that restricted medical assistance in dying to those who are already near death.
As part of the legislation, the government promised to conduct independent reviews to determine whether the legislation should eventually be expanded to include advance requests, mature minors and those suffering strictly from mental illnesses.
In December, the government engaged the Council of Canadian Academies to conduct the reviews of the three issues and report back to Parliament by late 2018; the council this week announced the creation of a 43-member expert panel on assisted dying, chaired by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Marie Deschamps.
The council has subdivided the panel into three working groups, including the advance request group to be chaired by Schipper, a University of Toronto professor of medicine.
Schipper has been a strident opponent of assisted dying.
In a June 2014 column published in the Globe and Mail, he opined that civilized society always runs into trouble when it makes exceptions to the moral imperative that life is sacred. He then compared arguments used to justify assisted dying with those advanced by Nazi Germany to justify the Holocaust.
"Similar arguments about relieving suffering were used by the Nazis to justify first exterminating the weakened and disabled, then the mentally ill and then non-Aryans on the regime's hell-bent descent into depravity," he wrote.
"In order to execute the policy, a cohort of licensed killers was created. This, in a society once considered the world's most sophisticated and cultured."
He concluded that "assisted suicide is not a legal matter. It's a moral one and we can't legislate morality."
Neither the council nor Schipper responded to requests for comment on his appointment to lead the working group.
But Shanaaz Gokool of Dying With Dignity Canada says Schipper's past comments are a "grave insult" to the vast majority of Canadians who support the right to medical help to end their lives.
Moreover, she said his appointment sends a "troubling message" to those who've been diagnosed with conditions like dementia and who want the right to make an advance request for an assisted death while they are still mentally competent to do so.
She called on Schipper to clarify his stance on assisted dying and whether he can bring an impartial approach to the advance request issue.
"Assisted dying is not up for debate, it's already happened," Gokool said in an interview.
"We've moved beyond that. But has Mr. Schipper?"
Gokool also expressed concern that the council appears to be setting up "an elite academic exercise" to study the three unresolved issues, with no opportunity to hear from ordinary Canadians about their "lived experiences."
In any event, the federal government has specifically instructed the council not to provide recommendations, but simply summarize its findings.