The Special Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

Article excerpt

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.

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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, Therese 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. Luring 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 opportunity.

One of the few negative stories about the Committee focused on the cost of providing simultaneous interpretation for members and witnesses during the trip. …