National Column: Clock is ticking on the assisted-suicide law

Two weeks after the Supreme Court unanimously lifted the ban on physician-assisted suicide, a cone of silence has fallen on Parliament.

The Liberals and the New Democrats seem as incurious as to the government’s intentions as the Conservatives are cagey about the way forward.

The House came back for the first time since the ruling on Monday but it was not until Wednesday that the issue was raised by one of the main parties in question period, and then only in a cursory way.

To a generic question from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister gave a 33-word answer that was as cryptic as it was brief.

“This is obviously a sensitive topic for many Canadians, and there are strong opinions on both sides. We will examine this decision and hold broad consultations on all aspects of this difficult issue,” Stephen Harper answered.

Note the absence of any reference to a time frame.

And yet there are two clocks ticking on this file.

The first is the one-year reprieve the Supreme Court gave Parliament to rewrite the Criminal Code before the prohibition on physician-assisted suicide simply becomes moot. As of that point each province would determine how best to apply the ruling.

The other is that of an upcoming election. Once the House rises in June, it won’t reopen until late fall at the earliest.

Note also that the prime minister did not repeat his minister of justice’s assertion that the government is “unlikely” to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to maintain the prohibition on assisted suicide.

In his first comments on the Supreme Court ruling Peter MacKay called the clause “the legal equivalent of a nuclear bomb.” He added that the government was not likely to use it. “I would not count on it,” he answered even more definitively when he was asked again a few days later.

From so few dots here is a tentative picture of the state of play in the Commons.

Until further notice, the option to punt the debate until after the October election remains a live one for the government.

Then-prime minister Brian Mulroney took that route after the Supreme Court struck down the Criminal Code restrictions on abortion shortly before the 1988 election. He needed to paper over deep Tory divisions until the campaign was over.

Harper’s options may be equally limited.

Notwithstanding MacKay’s tentative assurance on the non-use of the notwithstanding clause, that debate is not necessarily closed for a significant contingent within the Conservative party.

Beyond the party’s social conservative wing there are also those who feel that the courts have crossed the line on judicial activism and that it is time for the government to push back.

There are only 12 sitting weeks left in this Parliament.

In a free vote on assisted suicide, Harper cannot assume that a majority of his members would support the government.

Indeed if the vote broke down along the same lines as on abortion-related motions, the prime minister could expect a majority of his MPs to vote against any proposal that leaves the door open to assisted suicide.

So far neither the Liberals nor the NDP has shown much inclination to jump in front of this parade for they too are struggling to arrive at a consensus position. But on Friday Trudeau put a motion on the order paper calling for a parliamentary committee to be struck to discuss the way forward. It could be put to a vote as early as next week.

For Trudeau, there is an additional issue of consistency to be resolved at some point in this process. If he expects Liberal MPs to uphold the Supreme Court position on abortion, would it not follow that the same caucus policy should apply to the right to assisted suicide?

Finally all parties still have to square the circle of how comprehensively Parliament can use its jurisdiction on the Criminal Code to frame access to medically assisted suicide in Canada.

By virtue of the constitutional division of powers, the provinces have the exclusive responsibility for health-related policies.

Quebec used that prerogative to include assisted suicide in a right-to-die law that will come into force at the end of the year and the national assembly can be expected to fight any federal attempt to limit its scope every inch of the way.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2015 Torstar Syndication Services

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