David Swann: Time for a Thoughtful Discussion on Assisted Dying

In February of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada made a landmark ruling striking down the Criminal Code’s prohibition on doctor assisted dying, effective February 2016. In order to allow Parliament to enact new legislation governing when and under what circumstances an individual may obtain the assistance of a doctor to die with greater control and dignity, the Supreme Court delayed enforcement of its ruling for a year. Public polls in Canada have indicated that a majority of citizens want laws that enable greater control over dying with the assistance of medical professionals.

Six months after this far-reaching decision, the Harper government has made no real effort to engage the provinces, medical professionals or Canadians to determine under what circumstances we will allow an individuals to make the incredibly personal and difficult decision to end an incurable disease or chronic suffering and choose, with the help of their family, the conditions and timing of death.


Without standards and monitoring in place, every province will be left to establish its own rules and procedures, potentially leading to a patchwork system, confusion and litigation. What safeguards are needed? What steps and oversight will we require? How will we ensure that individuals are properly informed and of sound mind at the time of their decision? How will we ensure the right of physicians who choose not to be involved in assisted dying? The Supreme Court has made it clear that the status quo is not acceptable, but the rest is really up to our society to decide.

 I think many of us have had family or friends who have suffered from progressive, incurable diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or late stage cancers with chronic pain and loss of control of body functions, and wish not to prolong the dying process any further. At the same time, we appreciate the need for proper safeguards to confirm the competence and voluntariness of those who have decided that their suffering needs to end. Five U.S. states and several European countries have already enacted assisted dying protocols and are monitoring the results to ensure that the correct balance is struck between the right to die with dignity and protection from its abuse.

In order to fill the gap left by the federal government, Alberta has joined an interprovincial committee to discuss the issue of assisted dying. Thus far, however, the Alberta government has revealed little information as to the mandate of this committee and what, if any, public consultation will be held.

Behind any case of assisted dying is an individual’s own personal story; stories of the most difficult decision that one can ever face, stories of incredible bravery and poise in the face of incessant suffering, and of heartache at the undeniable need to say goodbye in a more controlled and favourable time and place. It is of the utmost importance that we learn from the experiences of other countries, respecting both the rights of individuals and medical professionals, as we create Canadian policy on assisted dying.

I urge all Albertans to write to their MLA, the Minister of Health and the Premier to make their views known on this timely matter.