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Louise McEwanThe outrage came fast and furious. Within hours of the federal government releasing its draft legislation on assisted suicide, politicians and the public were clamouring for more permissive legislation.

A majority of Canadians accept assisted suicide as a national value. This is evident in polls, in the language we use and in the national conversation taking place. Once we talked about assisted suicide. Now we talk about medical aid in dying and physician-assisted dying. Once we debated the ethics of assisted suicide for competent adults who were terminally ill and in intractable pain. Now, we focus on constitutional rights; we are considering assisted dying for the mentally ill, mature minors and individuals with advance directives.

Canadians were already in favour of physician-assisted suicide prior to the February 2015 Supreme Court of Canada Carter vs. Canada decision. A 2014 Ipsos-Reid poll, for example, found that 84 percent of Canadians approved of physician-assisted dying for a competent, terminally ill individual who was suffering intolerably.

In Carter, the court ruled that a competent adult who consents to death, and who has a “grievous and irremediable medical condition (including illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual,” has a right to physician-assisted dying. Note that terminal illness is not a criterion.

The ruling in Carter moved the goal posts; Canadian attitudes are following. An April 2016 Forum Poll found that 74 percent of Canadians support the court’s decision. This is up from 70 percent in February 2016.

Forum Research president Dr. Lorne Bozinoff noted “that approval for the Supreme Court’s ruling in Carter has increased the more the ruling is discussed. I expect that by the time the government discloses its approach to assisted-dying, approval will be even higher. . . .”

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By opening the door to physician-assisted suicide for individuals who are not terminally ill, the Supreme Court pushed the envelope on national values. Canadians no longer consider terminal illness to be necessary for physician-assisted suicide. And a growing number are questioning the need for competency.

We are normalizing suicide and turning it into a medical treatment. This is changing how Canadians think about the act of living.

As we become more liberal in our attitudes towards hastening death, we are developing a view of the human person that relies too heavily on robust health of mind and body. The increasing emphasis on “quality of life” is limiting our imagination; we cannot see beyond a healthy, active, independent ‘me.’

This potentially dangerous mindset requires a strong regulatory regime if we are to avoid sliding to the bottom of the slippery slope.

The proposed Bill C-14 attempts to create these safeguards. Despite my faith-based objections to the taking of life, I thought the bill was reasonably principled. It seems to strike a balance between the right to die and the need to prevent abuses and protect the vulnerable. But my reading of Bill C-14 does not accord with that of its most vocal critics. They describe it as too restrictive and unconstitutional, saying it is unfair to those with mental illness, to mature minors and to people with who are afraid they might develop dementia.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has described the proposed legislation to amend the Criminal Code to comply with Carter as “a responsible first step.” While it may be some time before we legislate physician-assisted suicide for the mentally ill, mature minors and those with advanced directives, we are definitely heading in that direction. Where might we go after that?

Writing about the relationship between law and morality, Michael Bauman, Professor of Theology and Culture and Director of Christian Studies at Michigan’s Hillsdale College,  said, “Law is both an expression and shaper of the conscience of a nation.” When the Supreme Court took terminal illness off the table in the Carter ruling, it paved the way for the development of even more permissive attitudes towards life and death in Canada. The conscience of the nation is heading in a direction that I won’t be following.

Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. 

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