Two senators introduced a new bill Tuesday that would legalize physician-assisted death if passed by both Houses of Parliament.

Ontario Sen. Nancy Ruth and B.C. Sen. Larry Campbell say the issue of assisted suicide should be discussed by elected officials, who are in the position to write clear laws that protect both patients and their doctors.

"There are Canadians all across Canada who are suffering," Ruth told CTV's Power Play Tuesday evening. And their families "want some ability to not have them suffer so much and for so long when there are no other medical ways or drugs or any treatment that will help these folks.

"That's what this bill is about, it's about alleviating suffering."

The bill, tabled by Ruth, a Conservative, and seconded by former Liberal Campbell, borrows heavily from private member's bills put forward by Conservative MP Stephen Fletcher but includes some additions and re-writes.

Fletcher's latest bill has languished so far down the House legislative agenda that it will likely never come up for debate. Introducing legislation in the Senate is another way to compel Parliamentarians to debate and discuss the issue, he said.

"My Spidey senses suggested the senators would be more receptive to this issue," Fletcher told Power Play.

The legislation will amend the Criminal Code to allow the provinces, which oversee health care, to move forward with their own right-to-die bills.

"I think this is an opportunity, in fact, for the Senate to shine, to demonstrate why the Senate is there," Fletcher said earlier Tuesday at a news conference alongside Ruth and Campbell.

"They're dealing with an issue that obviously most elected representatives do not want to deal with."

A debate in Parliament on the issue will increase public awareness, he added, and compel families to discuss end-of-life issues.

'Well-intentioned torture'

The issue is of great personal concern to Fletcher, who has been a quadriplegic since age 23 following an accident in which his car hit a moose.

"I was literally drowning in my own phlegm for months," Fletcher said of his post-accident recovery. "Every breath was an effort. I couldn't sleep. No pain medication was going to help. I describe it as well-intentioned torture."

While he fought through because he knew his condition would improve, there are terminally ill patients who will only get worse, he added.

"Where there's lots of suffering and no hope, why force someone to go through the suffering?" he asked. "What's the point? It just seems cruel."

Fletcher told Power Play that he believes the legislation would pass a free vote in the House.

What's next for the bill?

Ruth expects the bill to return from committee by spring, when senators can vote on it and have it move to the House for consideration by MPs.

Both Ruth and Campbell said they don't expect unanimous support from their caucuses.

"We don't fight on hills that we don't think we can take," Campbell told reporters Tuesday morning. "So I'm quite hopeful that this will be into the Senate and we will get it to committee as quickly as possible and get it back again. I see no reason to hold this up."

Added Ruth: "Senators are close enough to death to want to do this."

Even though a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada on physician-assisted suicide is expected soon, Fletcher said the Criminal Code would still need to be amended to prevent legal challenges that would be inevitable if the status quo remains.

"I think we can avoid a lot of nasty and unnecessary court drama by supporting the bill that Sen. Ruth and Sen. Campbell are bringing forward," Fletcher said.

Bill 'doesn't coerce anybody'

Ruth, Campbell and Fletcher were all quick to note that the legislation does not coerce either a doctor or a family member to help a patient die.

Asked about the differences between this bill and Fletcher's previous private member's bills, Ruth said the new legislation spells out that two physicians must be a part of the process. As well, there must be two witnesses, and neither can be a family member or someone who stands to inherit from the patient's estate.

The bill:

  • clarifies the roles of the assisting physician, the consulting physician, and who can be official witnesses
  • requires doctors to report to their provincial ministry that they have assisted with a death and provide a certificate with all relevant details
  • calls for a 14-day waiting period after a patient's first request to a physician for help with dying, followed by a second conversation to confirm the patient's wishes

"There has to be consent freely given, no coercion," Ruth said. "And there's no way to force doctors to do this."

Strong support

Ruth noted that a Parliamentary debate over the right to die is "timely," given the results of a recent survey that showed the majority of Canadians support physician-assisted suicide.

In October, the Dying With Dignity Canada survey found that 84 per cent of respondents support physician-assisted death. The survey, conducted by Ipsos Reid, also found that the vast majority of respondents believe that palliative care does not do enough for the terminally ill.

Susan Desjardins, chair of the organization's local chapter in Ottawa, said Tuesday that her own sister-in-law's recent death from cancer illustrated the limits of palliative care.

"Yes, palliative care is extremely helpful," Desjardins told reporters. "But at the point where the person's fingers are blue and they are choking for every breath and the physicians are trying to help them and the only thing they can do is put them in a drug-induced coma, that's not enough."