Senator struggles with the dilemma of being both fair and just

The Catholic Register
Week of March 6, 2000
By Senator Douglas Roche, O.C.
Catholic Register Special

Can I be fair and just at the same time?

That is a major problem I am facing at this moment in Parliament.

Two Bills, dealing with life and death, and sex, are before us. They practically scream out, "Be fair," and yet the long-range implications, at the very least, challenge society's values on two predominant issues: death and family relationships.

Bill S-2 was introduced in the Senate last November as a Private Bill and has been debated vigorously since. It would protect health care providers against prosecution when they withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment at the request of the patient, or administer pain-relieving medication to alleviate physical pain, even though life might inadvertently be shortened.

The Bill, introduced by Senator Sharon Carstairs, flows out of the 1995 Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. In that report, the committee unanimously recommended that palliative care support systems be strengthened in Canada and the Criminal Code be amended to clarify when the withholding and withdrawing of life-sustaining treatment is legally acceptable. But the committee was divided on making assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia legal; some Senators thought these practices should be legal, others did not.

The result was that the government, reluctant to be seen to be addressing issues even remotely connected to the highly-controversial subject of assisted suicide, buried the report. Now a new Senate committee has been struck to examine the unanimous recommendations of the 1995 report, i.e. palliative care. Only a minority of Canadians have access to good palliative care. The committee will undoubtedly recommend, when it reports next June, that the government should get on with widening the economic, medical, and social bases of palliative care so that the increasing numbers of aged, terminally ill persons receive compassionate care.

In the midst of this laudable push for more palliative care comes Bill S-2.

I have no problem with the intention of the Bill. For I believe that it is both legal and moral for a health care provider to administer medication to alleviate the physical pain of a person suffering from a life-threatening condition, even if such medication might shorten the life of the person, provided that it is not the intention to cause death.

I oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide as incompatible with human dignity. But I also recognize the legal rights of competent persons to refuse treatment. Good legislation should balance two important obligations: the obligation not to intentionally kill someone and the obligation not to use life-sustaining procedures that would impose burdens out of proportion with the benefits to be gained from the procedure.

But here is the dilemma. How can we be sure the medical treatment is intended to alleviate pain and not deliberately shorten life? Will such treatment become common? Are we, in short, weakening the integrity of life through our legitimate desire to ease pain?

The Campaign Life Coalition sees this Bill as a first step toward creating a demand for assisted suicide. But the Catholic Health Association of Canada is more cautious, seeing the strength in the bill if the definitions are clarified. Some Senators want to oppose the Bill outright. But I think the Bill should at least go forward to the committee stage where expert witnesses can give their views.

The question remains: does the principle of the Bill open the door to direct euthanasia and assisted suicide, or are these evils only the indirect outcome of mis-applied legislation?

* * *

Over in the House of Commons, the government has introduced Bill C-23, that, if passed into law, would amend 68 federal statutes to extend benefits and obligations to same-sex couples on the same basis as common-law opposite-sex couples.

The legislation is a response to the May, 1999 ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada, which stated that governments cannot limit benefits or obligations by discrimination against same-sex common-law relationships. The Court held that denying equal treatment before law to same-sex common-law partners is contrary to the principles of equality enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Well, that's interesting. Canadian society is now moving forward to provide economic benefits to homosexual relationships in the name of equality. I am told that if I don't vote for this legislation (it will soon come to the Senate), I will be discriminating against homosexuals. What should I do? On the one hand, I want to be fair to homosexuals who have established that they are in long-term relationships. On the other hand, this Bill could be a step towards the legalization of same-sex marriages. The government says, Oh no! we have no intention of changing the legal definition of marriage. The term "spouse" will continue to refer only to married persons. Yet the homosexual community is cheering the Bill because they see it as advancing their claim to full rights.

What about the economic rights of elderly siblings living together?

Shouldn't two brothers or two sisters living together and supporting an aged parent get the same economic benefits homosexual partners will now receive? Where is justice here? The government says more study is required. I say more study is required on societal support systems for the family - and for the right to life of every person before we rush legislation through Canada's Parliament. On the issues of life and death, and sex, we are already paying a big price for the secularization of our culture.