Former NDP MP Svend Robinson will never forget the time on February 12, 1994, when a crusader for patients’ rights died in his presence with the help of a doctor. The previous September, Sue Rodriguez had narrowly lost her attempt in the Supreme Court of Canada to have physician-assisted death declared legal.
Her body was rapidly deteriorating as a result of a fatal neurodegenerative disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, so she went ahead and ended her life this way. And a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate whether Robinson had broken any law by refusing to divulge the name of medical practitioner.
“A whole nation was really moved by her courage and by the dignity with which she sought that change,” Robinson recently told the Straight by phone. “The special prosecutor recommended to the government that no criminal charges be laid against me.”
Twenty-one years later, in February 2015, Robinson was thrilled when the Supreme Court of Canada came to a different verdict in a case involving B.C. residents Lee Carter, Hollis Johnson, Gloria Taylor, and physician William Shoichet. Taylor, like Rodriguez, was suffering from ALS and did not want to die slowly, racked with pain. The law banning doctor-assisted death was ruled unconstitutional in cases where a competent adult person clearly consents and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes enduring suffering and is intolerable.
Robinson, however, maintained that the Trudeau government’s Medical Assistance in Dying legislation, which became law in 2016, does not conform with the terms of the Carter ruling.
“That law is unconstitutional,” he said. “It is cruel and it is unjust.”
Now the NDP candidate in Burnaby North–Seymour, Robinson called on Justice Minister David Lametti to amend the legislation before the federal election this October.
“He was one of four Liberal MPs who voted against this bill,” Robinson noted. “He understood it didn’t respect the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada.”
He cited several areas of concern, including the law’s requirement of “reasonable foreseeability” of death.
In effect, Robinson said, a person has to be near death to qualify for a medically assisted exit from this world.
“The Supreme Court of Canada’s test was grievous and irremediable,” he noted. “That’s very different from reasonably foreseeable death.”
Furthermore, Robinson objects to religiously based and publicly funded health organizations such as Providence Health Care prohibiting medically assisted death on their premises. He wants the law changed to prevent this from happening.
“This is completely unacceptable that a publicly funded health-care institution should deny the people who are living there their constitutional right to medical assistance in dying.”
Robinson promised that if he’s elected, he will bring forward a private member’s bill to deal with these issues if Lametti doesn’t take action. He also hopes to make this a plank in the NDP platform.
“That should be an election issue in every constituency in this country,” the former MP emphasized.
Robinson also sees how the federal legislation could have an impact on him if he ever develops early-stage Alzheimer's disease.
He's told his partner, Max Riveron, that if things come to this point and he's unable to function, he wants Riveron to ask a doctor to end his life in accordance with his wishes.
Robinson noted that 80 percent of Canadians want that right to an advance request to be honoured.
But the law doesn't allow this.
"It's basic and yet in this bill, the government is refusing to do that," he said. "That's another area of concern."