Catholic bishops object to deciding “grave moral questions” by online survey

Archbishop Richard Gagnon, President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently wrote the federal government about consultation on euthanasia / assisted suicide rules. (CCN file photo by Deb Gyapong)

By Bryan Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

[Ottawa – CCN] – On a matter of life and death Canadians were given two weeks in January 2020 to make their views known to the federal government on the possible expansion of who can ask to be put to death by a doctor in Canada legally.

When the federal government was considering legalizing pot, they were given two months from Nov. 21, 2017, to January 20, 2018, to comment.

The federal government is coming under increasing fire from critics of legal medically-assisted suicide in Canada for how quickly it is moving to change the regulations surround the existing medically-assisted suicide / euthanasia system — known as “Medical Aid in Dying” or MAID — and for how short a time period Canadians were given to express their views in an online survey overseen by the Ministry of Justice.

In a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dated Jan. 31, which was four days after the federal government’s two-week online survey of Canadians regarding changes to rules around medically-assisted death ended on Jan. 27, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) president Archbishop Richard Gagnon reiterated the Catholic Church’s opposition to government-sanctioned suicide and euthanasia while slamming the idea that a survey is the way to address “grave moral questions.”

“It is inappropriate and superficial to use a survey to address grave moral questions concerning life and death,” said Gagnon, who is Archbishop of Winnipeg. “Two weeks is entirely insufficient to study the question as well as to learn from the sobering lessons in other jurisdictions where euthanasia/assisted suicide has been practised with fewer restrictions.”

On an issue of such importance, the federal two week online consultation period is troubling to others as well.

“The government gave Canadians just 14 days to fill out a bare-bones online questionnaire on expanding MAID. Graduating high school students have more time to consider a university acceptance letter than Canadians were given to consider monumental social change fraught with moral complexity,” said Ray Pennings, executive vice-president of the Ottawa faith-based think tank Cardus.

“The government needs to take its time,” he said.

The short time period Canadians were given to comment on possible changes to the assisted suicide/ euthanasia system is tied to a recent Quebec court decision in September 201,  known as the Truchon decision, that struck down the “reasonably foreseeable” and imminent death requirement to qualify for an assisted death as being unconstitutional.

Both the federal and Quebec governments could have appealed that decision but have decided not to appeal, which means that the federal government will make changes to Canada’s assisted-dying regulations to comply with a court deadline of March 11 of this year. Federal Justice Minister David Lametti has said he wants to put issue on the docket to be debated in the House of Commons by the middle of February.

Legal medically-assisted suicide / euthanasia in Canada has been driven by court rulings, with the federal government passing legislation to regulate the procedure following a Canadian Supreme Court decision in 2015 that led to the existing federal law in 2016.

That law included a number of restrictions. In addition to the requirement that a person already be nearing the end of life, which the Quebec court decision struck down, assisted suicide or euthanasia is presently only available to adults, cannot be administered to someone who is suffering from mental illness, and may not be administered through an advance directive after a patient’s condition deteriorates to the point in which they are mentally impaired from making a final decision.

The federal decision not to appeal that Quebec ruling has been a hot-button issue for opponents of assisted suicide and euthanasia and of any possible expansion of who qualifies for medically-assisted death.

“We are disappointed and deeply concerned that the federal government has recently refused to appeal the Quebec Superior Court ruling on extending euthanasia/assisted suicide to persons whose deaths are not imminent,” CCCB president Gagnon said on behalf of Canada’s Catholic bishops.\

That disappointment is reiterated by Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, who said the federal government had a “duty” to appeal the decision even if it agreed with the court decision.

“They abdicated their responsibility as the federal government,” he said, calling the government’s two week online survey which the Ministry of Justice said 300,000 Canadians took part in a “dog and pony show.”

“The online consultation questionnaire was a sham,” Schadenberg said. “Many of the questions implied an outcome. It is a sham to ask people to complete a questionnaire when some of the questions are designed to provide a predetermined outcome.”

In the CCCB’s letter to the prime minister, Archbishop Gagnon also took issue with the federal government’s survey questions.

“The way the survey was constructed requires Canadians to agree tacitly in the expansion of euthanasia before even being able to express opposition and any concerns they may have,” Gagnon’s letter to the prime minister said.

“We, as bishops of the Catholic faithful in Canada, call on the government to engage in a more rigorous, impartial and prolonged study of the problems inherent in euthanasia/assisted suicide by involving those whose experiences offer a different perspective and even present inconvenient truths,” the CCCB letter said.

In response to the CCCB’s letter, Rachel Rappaport, press secretary to Justice Minister David Lametti, said that what the government is doing at this point is responding to the Quebec court decision, but pointed out that there will be a further review of Canada’s legally-assisted death system starting in summer 2020 as promised when the legislation around assisted suicide and euthanasia was first enacted.

“Our government recognizes that medical assistance in dying is a complex and deeply personal issue. We remain committed to protecting vulnerable individuals while protecting the Charter rights of all Canadians,” Rappaport said. “We received nearly 300,000 responses from the public as part of the online survey, demonstrating just how engaged Canadians are with this deeply significant issue.

“Canada’s current medical assistance in dying law requires a parliamentary review of the law’s provisions, as well as the state of palliative care in Canada starting at the beginning of the fifth year after becoming law, which would be the summer of 2020,” she said. “This review would allow for further public and parliamentary debate on all aspects of medical assistance in dying in Canada.”