OTTAWA – The Harper government is finally set to announce its long-promised public consultation process on the contentious issue of doctor-assisted dying.
As part of the consultation process to be announced this afternoon, The Canadian Press has learned the government is creating a panel of experts to conduct roundtable discussions.
The government has been dragging its feet on the issue since last February when the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on medically assisted death.
The top court gave the government 12 months to craft a new law that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help to end their lives.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay last month signalled that the Conservative government, if re-elected this fall, would ask the court to extend the deadline. He cited time constraints caused by the election.
However, some legal experts have doubted the court would grant an extension since the government has done little to advance the file since February.
The Conservatives voted against a Liberal motion in late February that called for the creation of a multi-party special committee to consult and report back to Parliament by mid-summer with a proposed framework for a new law. At that time, the government argued that a broader public consultation process was required and promised to launch one “very soon.”
MacKay has already said the government will not propose new legislation until after the Oct. 19 election.
The issue is particularly touchy for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservative caucus and party support base include a strong pro-life contingent that is adamantly opposed to medically assisted dying.
A number of Tory backbenchers have urged the government to invoke the constitutional notwithstanding clause to override the Supreme Court and reinstate the ban on assisted suicide.
But opinion polls suggest an overwhelming majority of Canadians want the legal right to choose to die with dignity, with the help of a doctor.
In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Toronto health lawyer Mary Jane Dykeman says in order to have a legislative response in place by early February when the Criminal Code prohibitions fall away, paving the way for physician-assisted dying, a government consultation would need to be launched promptly.
“It would have to be, and be seen to be, both efficient and responsive to stakeholders,” Dykeman says. “Given the nature of summer holidays, some of the real work will inevitably be done after Labour Day and in the lead-up to the October federal election.”
Dykeman, partner with Dykeman Dewhirst O’Brien LLP, agrees that to wait until mid-October to request an extension to the February deadline carries a real risk of it not being granted and time running out.
“But the Catch-22 is that to request it now, without the backdrop of having completed a robust consultation, also decreases the likelihood of the timeframe being extended,” she says.