National Column: End-of-life law should have free vote

by Chantel Hebert

When the House of Commons votes on medically assisted suicide later this year, it will be making history in two controversial ways.

So far, only a handful of countries have included the option of assisted suicide in their end-of-life medical protocol. The upcoming legislation will be taking Canada in relatively uncharted social policy waters.

And then in contrast with comparable debates pertaining to the death penalty, abortion rights and same-sex marriage, this one will see the Liberal party break with the tradition of allowing its MPs – even when it is in government – to vote freely on so-called issues of conscience.

It is hard to quarrel with the notion that medically assisted suicide falls in the limited category of policies that stand to go against the deeply held personal convictions of some MPs. When it adopted a law along similar lines, the Quebec national assembly held a free vote.

At the federal level, the Conservatives will not impose a party line on their MPs. Nor will the NDP. In contrast with reproductive rights, the New Democrats have historically not championed medically assisted suicide. They, like their Conservative colleagues, will be free to make up their own minds as to whether to support the bill.

But the Liberal decision to forgo a free vote is part of a broader change designed to ensure Justin Trudeau’s caucus walks the talk of the party’s professed commitment to charter rights. That was not always the case in the past with divisions surfacing on votes on abortion and gay rights.

The new approach was part and parcel of the recent Liberal platform.

It could also be argued that forcing the party line on the majority Liberals removes any uncertainty as to the fate of the bill in the Commons.

The last time the House pronounced on the issue of medically assisted suicide an overwhelming majority of MPs – including an equally overwhelming majority of Liberals – voted against it by a margin of 228 to 59.

But that was at a time when the Supreme Court still held that the ban on the procedure was constitutional. Since then the top court has reversed itself.

Based on the recent past, that reversal would be grounds for many MPs to reconsider their position, regardless of whether the vote was a free one.

After the courts ruled in favour of same-sex marriage just over a decade ago, many MPs who had previously supported the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman changed their stance.

To make supporting the bill even easier, MPs will not actually be asked to give the green light to medically assisted suicide. That ship sailed when the Supreme Court struck down the Criminal Code sections that prohibited it.

The main purpose of the legislation currently being drafted against a court-imposed June deadline is to avoid a patchwork system of end-of-life care by putting in place a common national framework.

All that being said, in its quest to present a united front on an issue involving a charter right, Trudeau’s government may be doing a disservice to the debate and to the legislation that will result from it.

A government that cannot automatically count on its majority to get its way is more likely to be receptive to the arguments of all MPs. The opposition parties, in return, are more likely to feel they have a stake in the resulting legislation.

One of the strengths of the Quebec law is that it was supported freely by a majority of MNAs of every political stripe. The four parties came away from the discussion feeling they had all had real input in the process. As a result, the Quebec law is not at the mercy of a change in government and – even as it remains controversial in some circles – it is hard to make a case that is the product of an artificially imposed consensus.

And then, in contrast with their elected colleagues, all senators will be free to vote as they please on the legislation. By forgoing a free vote in the House of Commons, Trudeau is inviting the groups that are lobbying against the measure to make their stand in the upper house.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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