Canada rtd Jan05

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By Ken Pole

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler is a brave man. Given his record on human rights and other issues, that should come as no surprise. But he did surprise me by calling for a renewed public debate on assisted suicide. I think it was in response to questions about the case of a British Columbia woman charged with helping two others to kill themselves in 2002.

The prosecution called Evelyn Martens a "death contractor" but her counsel argued she had only provided moral support. The jury acquitted Martens, at the time a member of the Canadian Right to Die Society. That angered groups on the other side of the debate, who resorted to the "slippery slope" gambit. "Pretty soon old people are going to think they have a duty to die," a Euthanasia Prevention Coalition representative said.

The seniors I know have lifestyles that likely will keep them around for a long time. Even so, some have suggested they'd like a little help if they became terminally ill.

If, as Cotler indicated, it's time for debate, Dr. Albert Schumacher, president of the Canadian Medical Association, expects the concerns will be the same as in the past, but noted "a fair amount has changed in the last number of years since they looked at it?in society and in medicine.

"This is one (topic) that society has to discuss and lead on, whether it's done publicly or through their elected representatives." That said, there was no point in revising CMA policies, which he pointed out must "err on the side of doing the best for patients" while reflecting CMA members' views.

Like many, he has patients with end-of-life concerns. "You know, 'Doctor, when I'm brain-dead, please take me off the ventilator and take my I.V. out; if I can't eat or drink any more, that's a sign.' They come with these documents and living wills, powers of attorney."

Calling himself "one of the quicker machine turner-offers and I.V. unpluggers," Dr. Schumacher said he doesn't like anyone to be in a prolonged vegetative state and said his patients generally have similar preferences.

"I've been through the situation where everybody knows the mother's going to die and, no, we're not going to do anything else, and then the daughter from California shows up and makes everybody feel guilty. . . . That's something people want protection from."

He said any legislative solution should ensure patients' stated preferences have priority. "Public debate, and you probably need it regularly, at least makes people talk not only to their doctor, which is not usually where the problem is, but also to their families."

He recounted the story of his uncle, a Canadian-trained neurosurgeon whose wife, 50, suffered a heart attack "and was for all intents and purposes brain-dead by the time they got her to hospital." Dr. Schumacher said his aunt was "young enough and healthy enough that she would have probably lain in that vegetative state for years." It fell to his uncle to decide to stop the I.V.

"It's a very hard thing to go through, but for some of us that's the right decision," even though, he said, some members of the public might interpret that as euthanasia rather than a right to die.

Former prime minister Kim Campbell once admitted euthanasia had been "under discussion" when she held the justice portfolio in the early 1990s. But the discussion apparently didn't go very far because "it is one of those issues . . . that tends to split caucuses."

That was three years ago when Campbell took questions after delivering the John Tate Memorial Lecture in Law and Public Policy, an event named for a former deputy minister of justice.

"Some countries . . . are doing things that perhaps we can learn from," Campbell said. "This is not an area where I see Canada being in the forefront; we are not courageous . . . about this, but there may be other jurisdictions whose experiences will help."

That was pretty much the last time a major Canadian figure addressed the issue?until Cotler's musings. Brave words notwithstanding, neither Paul Devillers nor Diane Diotte, respectively chairman and clerk of the House of Commons justice committee, have heard anything more. Don't expect this debate any time soon, certainly not in a minority Parliament, even though it's long overdue.

Ken Pole is an Ottawa journalist. News Staff

The court date for the Montreal woman charged with helping her 36-year-old ill son commit suicide last September has been delayed until Feb. 23.

In the meantime, Marielle Houle, 58, is awaiting a court decision on whether she qualifies for legal aid. The nursing home employee earns a modest living and reportedly cannot afford a lawyer.

Her legal aid lawyer Salvatore Mascia says his client needs legal aid because it is likely the case will become a lengthy, expensive, constitutional debate.

"I'm optimistic that the authorities that be, will treat this as an exceptional case and give her the aid she deserves," he said.

If she doesn't qualify for legal aid, she will have to find a private practice lawyer, CFCF's Herb Luft reported.

Houle is charged with aiding and abetting suicide. If found guilty, she faces a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.

Houle allegedly helped her son Charles Fariala kill himself in September. The playwright and hospital orderly was found dead at his home after Houle called 911.

Police say when they arrived, Houle was in a state of shock, and needed to be carried from the home in a stretcher.

She has been free on bail since she was charged.

Fariala was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago.

Fariala's friends say he had been suffering from the illness for some time but that his condition had gotten much worse before his death.

As the disease robbed him of the ability to walk, they say he indicated he was suicidal.

MS is not a fatal illness, says the MS Society of Canada, and most patients can expect to live a normal or near-normal life span.

In Canada, there is no law that addresses the specific issue of assisted suicide.

Under the Criminal Code, it is not illegal for a person to commit suicide, but it is against the law for somebody to help another person end their life.

According to University of Manitoba bioethicist Arthur Schafer, assisted suicide is nevertheless an unspoken, but common occurrence in Canada.

"Because we don't have legislation that permits this, but also protects vulnerable people from being exploited, it occurs in the dark," he told CTV News.

The only Canadian convicted in a so-called right-to-die case is Robert Latimer. The Saskatchewan farmer was convicted 10 years ago of killing his 12-year-old daughter Tracy.

She had severe cerebral palsy.

The assisted suicide issue is currently making its way through B.C. courts in the case of 74-year-old Victoria resident, Evelyn Martens, who has been charged with assisting two women commit suicide.

The only North American jurisdiction that allows assisted suicide is the state of Oregon, where doctors must certify that death would otherwise be certain within six months.

With files from CFCF's Herb Luft