Ottawa 'very likely' to ask for extension on assisted dying

The federal government plans to ask for more time to respond to the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling on assisted dying, Justice Minister Peter MacKay has revealed.

On Feb. 6, the Supreme Court released its decision in Carter v. Canada. In their unanimous judgment, the nine judges on the high court struck down the federal prohibition on physician assisted dying, ruling the ban violates Canadians’ Charter rights to life, liberty and security of the person.

When it comes into effect in February 2016, the decision will decriminalize assisted dying for competent adults with “grievous and irremediable suffering” who wish to die with the help of a doctor.

However, on Tuesday, according to a report by The Canadian Press, Justice Minister Peter MacKay said it’s “very likely” the federal government ask the Supreme Court for an extension for beyond the February 2016 deadline. (He had stated earlier this year that Ottawa wouldn’t make such a request.)

With Parliament set to break for the summer session, and with a federal election expected in the fall, it’s unlikely that Parliament will be able to pass new assisted dying legislation before the ban officially expires, MacKay suggested.

"Do we have sufficient time? Certainly not in the life of this Parliament," MacKay, who is retiring from politics this year, was quoted as saying. "The legislative time frame to present a bill, to have it go through Parliament, and be seriously debated in Parliament at all its stages, I think would take us well beyond that February date."

Dying With Dignity Canada CEO Wanda Morris criticized MacKay's statements, charging that the government has had enough time to draft laws that respond to the Supreme Court's decision.

“I’m concerned that the government has delayed taking action for almost five months and now wants to put the burden of its inaction on those facing terrible deaths,” said Morris. “No one should be left to linger in anguish just because the government doesn’t want to deal with this issue before an election.”

Legal observers, and MacKay himself, say there’s no guarantee the Supreme Court will put its ruling on hold. “I think there’s a very good chance the court will say no,” Errol Mendes, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, told the Globe and Mail. “The question is, should elections get in the way of fundamental constitutional rights, especially of the most vulnerable?”

Experts say the court will want to know what the government has done to prepare for the decriminalization of assisted dying. MacKay says that informal discussions with particular interest groups have already begun. He also said the government will announce the details on the upcoming public consultation “very, very soon.”

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