At the time this article was
written Gary Levy was Clerk of the Special Senate Committee on Euthanasia and
On June 6, 1995, the Special
Senate Committee authorized to study the legal, social and ethical issues
related to euthanasia and assisted suicide tabled its report in the Senate.
This article looks at some of the innovative measures taken by the Committee since
it was established in February 1994.
From the outset it was clear that
the Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide would be special in
more than just name. For one thing its membership was set at seven, smaller
than the usual Standing Committee. There was very little turnover in membership
and substitution was rare. Full attendance was the rule rather than the
exception. The Committee was also special in that four of the seven members
were women including the Chairman, Senator Joan Neiman and the Vice Chairman,
Thérèse Lavoie-Roux, a former social worker and Minister of Health and Social
Services in Quebec.
The Senate generally meets only
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. Committees cannot meet at all when
the Senate is in session (unless they have special permission). Committee
meetings at other times are supposed to be confined to certain blocks of time
established by the Whips. With committee rooms in short supply a special
committee may find it difficult to find convenient times to meet. This was a
particular problem for the Special Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
since there was an informal understanding that the Committee would try not to
meet unless all members could be present.
Scheduling problems were ameliorated
to some extent by the willingness of the Committee on Legal and Constitutional
Affairs, chaired by Senator Beaudoin, to give one of its time slots, Wednesday
afternoon, to the Special Committee. This was supplemented by a number of
Wednesday evening meetings and by several meetings on either a Monday or a
Friday when the Senate was not in session. During the public phase of its
hearings which lasted from March 1994 to January 1995 the Committee heard more
than 150 groups and witnesses in Ottawa, Vancouver and Winnipeg.
To Travel or Not?
The question of travel was one of
the first issues to be considered by the Committee. Should it hold hearings
outside Ottawa? If so, where should it travel and should everyone travel? If
the Committee travelled should it advertise extensively?
After much discussion the Committee
decided to try to hear witnesses from Ontario, Quebec and the four Atlantic
provinces in Ottawa. Because of the immense interest in the issues of
euthanasia and assisted suicide in British Columbia three days of hearings were
scheduled in Vancouver. This was combined with two more days of hearings in
Winnipeg where witnesses from the prairie provinces would also be heard.
The Senators wanted to hear a
variety of opinions and not necessarily the same views over and over. Thus not
everyone who requested to appear was accepted and several individuals or groups
were invited to appear because of their expertise in the area under
investigation. The Committee did not authorize any paid advertising. Press releases
announcing the travel itinerary were sent to the media and a notice was put on
the parliamentary cable channel. Knowledge about the existence of the Committee
seemed to spread mainly by word of mouth and by occasional newspaper reports of
its hearings in Ottawa.
Criticism about the absence of
advertising for the meetings in Vancouver and Winnipeg was anticipated and
received. But generally speaking the Committee received favourable publicity
during its trip. A number of hours each day were left open to hear from members
of the audience in both Vancouver and Winnipeg. The Committee sat as late as
necessary during its travel. In the end not a single person who wished to
address the committee during the five days on the road was denied this
One of the few negative stories
about the Committee focused on the cost of providing simultaneous
interpretation for members and witnesses during the trip. This was offset by
some of the favourable remarks about the idea to hold the Vancouver hearings at
the University Hospital at UBC rather than in a downtown hotel or conference
centre. This not only saved hundreds of dollars but the money that was spent
remained in the health and education sector where it was so badly needed.
The Committee also had to consider
whether to examine how other jurisdictions deal with the issues of euthanasia,
assisted suicide and palliative care. The Netherlands was an obvious
destination because of the unique approach that country has take to these
issues. The United Kingdom and United States were other possible destinations.
It was decided not to travel to any of these places. A few American experts
were invited to testify in Ottawa but they were unable to accept. As for the
Netherlands the Committee decided to try video-conference technology in order
to gather some information about the Dutch situation.
The Senate, unlike the House of
Commons, does not have any Committee rooms equipped to handle videoconferences.
To rely on the House facilities would have risked being bumped at the last
minute by a House Committee. As a result the Committee arranged for portable
videoconference equipment to be installed for one day in a Senate Committee
room. It enabled the members to see and hear testimony from 13 Dutch witnesses
including doctors, lawyers, nurses and others with considerable experience in
areas of interest to the committee. The cost for this videoconference was less
than $7,500 compared with an estimated $30,000 to take the committee to the
Netherlands and nearly as much to bring that many Dutch witnesses to Ottawa.
Since a large part of the
Committee's task was educational it published an in-house information bulletin
that summarized evidence presented to the Committee. The bulletin included a
selection of letters received from members of the public. This document was
sent to everyone who wrote to the Committee and was available at all public
meetings in Ottawa and on the road. It also served to provide background
information for the many journalists and students who requested information
about the Committee. The writing, design, production and distribution of seven
issues of this bulletin in both languages was co-ordinated by one person hired
on a contract basis.
The success of the Bulletin led the
Committee to consider the next logical step, making it available in an
electronic version through the Internet so that interested individuals around
the world could read about what the Committee was doing. The first issues were
made available through the National Capital Freenet at no cost to the
Committee. A Freenet discussion group was also set up and over a period of six
months about a hundred requests for information arrived in this way, some from
universities and interested individuals as far away as Japan and Australia.
The Freenet experience did not
prove very satisfactory, however. In part this was due to the difficulty in
accessing Freenet during normal working hours. The amount of disk space that
could be used was very limited as was the assistance available to those
unfamiliar with the technology. It became clear that if the Committee wanted to
use the Internet in a serious way it was going to require an investment of time
and money, neither of which was readily available.
At this time the Committee received
an unsolicited offer from one of the "stakeholders" in the euthanasia
debate, the Right to Die Society of Canada. The Society offered to put the
entire Committee transcripts on the Internet at no charge to the Committee.
This seemed like a good offer since the decision to make Committee transcripts
available on the Internet some day had already been approved in principle but
nothing could be done pending establishment of a full Internet Node on
Parliament Hill. It was clear that would not be ready before the Committee
tabled its report.
The main disadvantage of turning
transcripts over to a third party is that the institution, in this case the
Senate, loses control over what is done with the information. Nevertheless this
offer was accepted, in part because it would serve as a test for the day the
Senate itself began to place its Committee proceedings on the Internet.
Disks were shipped to the Right to
Die Society in Victoria where they were made available as part of a larger
database on end of life issues run by the Society. This material was
subsequently merged with an American group to create an Internet site called
"Deathnet" which specialized in information about euthanasia and
assisted suicide. During its first few weeks the transcripts on Deathnet
recorded 3,048 visits.
The decision take advantage of the
offer from an interested party in the debate over euthanasia an assisted
suicide led to some objections by those on the other side of the debate. They
argued that the impartiality of the committee could be questioned by its
willingness to co-operate with a pro-euthanasia group even for the
dissemination of its proceedings. The lesson from this experience seemed to be
that if the Committee wanted to use the information highway it could not leave all
the work and responsibility to another party.
Since the Parliamentary Internet
Node was still under construction the Committee looked into obtaining a
temporary Internet account with a commercial provider in Ottawa. Within a
couple of weeks and at a cost of two hundred dollars for an account and $500 in
consulting fees the Committee had all its bulletins and other information on
the Internet. The moment the report was tabled in the Senate it was also
available online at the following Internet address: http//www.magi.com~sencom/report.html
Report and Reaction
The Report of the Special Committee
was also somewhat of a departure from the usual parliamentary committee. Not
surprisingly members did not agree on the very difficult areas of euthanasia
and assisted suicide. But instead of having a majority and a minority report it
was decided there would be one Report which would reflect all views and not
just those of the majority. As a result arguments in favour of euthanasia or
assisted suicide within strictly controlled guidelines and arguments in favour
of maintaining the status quo were developed in the body of the report. Both
sides of the argument were considered and the text drafted by all members since
the objective of the exercise was primarily to provide a document that would
help parliamentarians and the public prepare for future debate that is certain
to occur long after the Committee has tabled its report. Thus members on one
side made suggestions as to how arguments by the other side could be better
formulated, even if they did not subscribe to those arguments.
In the end a majority of the seven
person committee decided that assisted suicide and euthanasia should not be
legalized. The minority decided otherwise and made recommendations accordingly.
Those in favour of permitting assisted suicide emphasized that there would have
to be clearly defined safeguards. Individuals must be competent and must be
suffering from an irreversible illness that had reached an intolerable stage,
as certified by a medical practitioner; the individual must make a free and
informed request for assistance, without coercive pressures; the individual
must have been informed of and fully understand his or her condition, prognosis
and the alternative comfort care arrangements available. These and other
conditions would have to assessed by a health care professional. No person
should be obligated to provide assistance with suicide.
While most media attention focused
on the issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide, the Committee also made a
number of recommendations, all of them unanimous, on areas such as pain
control, palliative care, withholding and withdrawing of treatment, and the
need for advance directive legislation in all provinces and a protocol to
recognize advanced directives executed in other provinces and territories.
Media reaction to the report was
mixed. Some saw it as offering the government a perfect excuse for taking no
action. Others called it a lucid, balanced and enlightening discussion of a delicate
subject. On the whole the work of the Special Committee seemed to demonstrate
that the Senate can still be a useful instrument for the consideration of
public policy issues and this can be done at a fraction of the cost of a Royal