Canadian Official Wants to Re-Open Debate on Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 23, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Canadian Official Wants to Re-Open Debate on Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide Email this article
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by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
November 23, 2004

Ottawa, Canada ( — With two high-profile euthanasia cases making headlines in Canada, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said last week that the debate on the issue should be re-opened among lawmakers.

"I find it a very difficult and complex issue," Cotler said late Wednesday. "I think we could benefit from a take-note, informed debate and discussion. You can’t do this within the framework of question period or any of the other frameworks we have."

"Among the population, there is this division," Cotler added. "People believe this is a matter of the right of personal choice and the right to die in dignity. Others feel we’ve got to protect the rights of the disabled, and this may be prejudicial."

While some speculators believe Cotler’s statements could lead to a new investigation into the issue, a spokeswoman for his office said the statements do not mean the Minister is recommending a revision of current laws against assisted suicide.

"The minister explained his own feelings about it," said Denise Rudnicki. "That it’s a very complex issue, that there’s no consensus among Canadians, that it’s not only a legal question, but a moral question with a lot of interested people who have a lot to say about it.

"But that’s not exactly a call for debate [and] there is no plan to champion a debate on assisted suicide," Rudnicki added. "The minister was simply saying that Parliament is in charge of what it wants to do. And if Parliament wants a debate on assisted suicide, why not?"

Recently, a Canadian woman has been charged with helping her son commit suicide last month.

Charles Fariala was found dead in his home, accompanied by his mother, Marielle Houle, who was in shock and had to be carried from the house. Houle had called 911 and reported her son’s death to the authorities.

In a related case, euthanasia advocate Evelyn Martens was acquitted of charges that she assisted two women with their suicides.

Martens was accused of helping Monique Charest and Leyanne Burchell end their lives on two separate occasions. Both women contacted Martens, a member of the Right to Die Society, to help them with their suicides. Neither woman was terminally ill.

While Canadian law does not forbid the act of suicide, it does state that assisting in a suicide is a crime.

Martens has expressed hope that her case would establish a legal precedent to allow assisted suicide.

"A Gallup poll says there’s 80 percent support for assisted suicide in British Columbia alone," Martens said in March 2003. "I hope it will help to change the law, so that every person has the right to choose their own destiny at the time of their choosing."

However, polling data has shown that support for assisted suicide in Canada is diminishing. Some polls even show that a majority of Canadians oppose the practice.

Pollara, a Canadian polling firm, conducted a survey in August 2003 that found that 49 percent of Canadians backed assisted suicide while 37 percent opposed it.

A 1997 poll taken shortly after Robert Latimer was sentenced for killing his disabled 12-year-old daughter, Tracy, found 70 percent of Canadians said assisted suicide was allowable in some circumstances and 60 percent favored legalizing it.

Pro-life groups have pointed out that the language used in the poll can make a difference in the results. For instance, a January 1999 poll for the Toronto Globe and Mail found that 56 percent of Canadians opposed assisted suicide.

Many of the polls that show support of assisted suicide are phrased to group that practice with providing better care for the terminally ill.

"Canadians don’t want to terminate the sick and disabled, they want to care for them," said Dr. Will Johnston of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

"There is no consensus about so-called mercy-killing." Johnston stated. "But there is definitely a public consensus for better palliative care services to relieve the suffering of dying persons. That’s where we should be focusing our attention instead of frightening sick and disabled Canadians with proposals to eliminate them."

Jim Derksen, former chair of Council of Canadians with Disabilities, responded to Cotler’s statements by telling the Globe and Mail that "very subtle forms of coercion, often covert" pressures are imposed by those assisting with a suicide.

"I would not deny Parliament’s right to debate any matter of public policy, but I think what the CCD would have to do is speak out vigorously and defend the right to life and security of a person and for people with disabilities," said Derksen.