Canadian call for Royal Commission on euthanasia

First published on CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWSFebruary 25, 2015 

OTTAWA - McGill University ethicist Margaret Somerville has called for a Royal Commission on "physician-assisted death" as well as for the federal government to invoke the notwithstanding clause to trump the Supreme Court's recent ruling on the matter.

In a Feb. 19 letter to Justice Minister Peter MacKay, the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and the Law wrote him of the "gravity" Canada faces as a result of the Carter decision that struck down Canada's laws against physician-assisted suicide.

"This decision does not represent an evolution in the foundational values that bind us together as a society, but a revolution, a radical departure from upholding the value of respect for life," she said.

Somerville said the decision also strikes down the section that "provides that consent to the infliction of death is not a justification for inflicting death," thus allowing physicians to kill their patients.

"This constitutes radical change, not only for individual Canadians, but also to the institutions of both law and medicine, because the law is changed to allow killing and physicians are authorized to carry it out," she said.

Somerville called for a Royal Commission to "fully enquire into the issue of legalization of 'physician-assisted' death and the use of the Charter's notwithstanding clause to suspend the Supreme Court's decision for five years in order to give the Commission time to report.

Consistent with the Hippocratic Oath, "euthanasia has never been characterized as medical treatment," she said, warning it represents not just a "small incremental change" but a "seismic shift."

"Moreover, the findings of fact by the trial judge with respect to the harms and risks of legalizing euthanasia, which were accepted by the Supreme Court as showing these harms and risks were not serious or could be avoided, are, with respect, not correct," she said. "This is a serious error, which is central to both the trial and Supreme Court of Canada decisions.

"All such factors need investigations by a Royal Commission and sober second thought, especially on the part of parliamentarians," she said.

The Conservative government has not been rushing to fill the looming legislative vacuum that will occur when the Court's suspension of its decision - thus keeping the present laws in place - expires after a year.

The Liberal Party, however, introduced a motion Feb. 24 asking that Parliament set up an all-party committee to study the matter so that legislation can be put in place before next October's federal election.

"Canadians expect their elected representatives to take a leadership role on this issue and engage in a responsible and respectful way," said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. "That is why we are calling for a special parliamentary committee to immediately begin discussions and make recommendations for a framework that will respect both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canadians' priorities."

The Conservative government has indicated it is in no hurry to respond to the Supreme Court decision, since polls show physician-assisted suicide is popular with Canadians, especially in Quebec.

You can view Professor Somerville's address to the 2014 HOPE Dinner HERE