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MP fights for assisted suicide

Fletcher knows well what it's like to live life filled with pain


Steven Fletcher speaks with the media as he leaves caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday.

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Steven Fletcher speaks with the media as he leaves caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS )

It's the question that will follow Steven Fletcher through what is the most personal cause he has ever undertaken.

In 1996, Fletcher was driving to a job in northern Manitoba when his car struck a moose. He was paralyzed from the neck down, and since then, by his own admission, he has lived a life of struggle, pain and, sometimes, suffering.

Now an MP and former cabinet minister, Fletcher will table two bills today to allow physician-assisted suicides.

This is not the first time the issue has arisen in Ottawa. A Bloc Québécois MP introduced a private member's bill in 2010 that was rejected by a solid majority of MPs from all parties.

It is, however, the first time an MP with such direct, first-hand experience with the end-of-life debate has asked Parliament to consider the issue.

In statements on the subject, Fletcher has never made a secret of the fact the period immediately following his accident was one of great despondency and uncertainty; his injuries were so severe, he several times nearly "drowned in my own phlegm." And since the injury, he has had to go through numerous invasive and painful surgeries to stabilize his condition.

The two bills, when combined with his own experience, raise an inevitable and important question: If physician-assisted suicide had been available in 1996, would he have chosen death over life?

When he is first asked, Fletcher is careful, almost evasive. "I would have found a lot of comfort in knowing that I had options," he said. "No matter where I've been in my life, I have always wanted to have the maximum number of options. Don't take away options even before we've had the discussion."

In which situations would assisted suicide be appropriate? Fletcher would not discuss specifics of the bill, but he said situations where terminally ill patients are being sedated and then allowed to starve to death are ones that scream out for other options.

And then, without prompting, Fletcher admitted that three years ago, just before a complex surgery to stabilize his neck, he told surgeons if there was any brain damage as a result of the procedure, "they should just walk away from the (operating) table and not worry about sewing me up." A notation to that effect was put in his living will.

"I have to live in my mind now," Fletcher said. "If my cognitive functions are compromised in any way, I'm not interested in going on."

Fletcher's mind was not compromised as a result of that procedure, even though he said -- with his trademark morbid sense of humour -- there are some within his own caucus who still wonder if "my IQ didn't drop a few points afterwards."

Few will have any concerns about his cognitive capacity after seeing the bills. Fletcher said one deals with the situations under which assisted suicide could be considered.

The other would create a commission of medical experts to review each case to ensure it is an appropriate option.

Fletcher admitted getting support for the bill will be a gargantuan task. Justice Minister Peter MacKay and MPs from the Tory caucus were quick to signal their opposition. In opposition ranks, there is great trepidation and uncertainty.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, in Winnipeg Wednesday, criticized the Tory government for leaving this important debate to a private member's bill. But he would not come out and endorse the idea of assisted suicide. Neither would Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

However, there are signs both Parliament and the courts may be ready for another debate.

The Supreme Court of Canada agreed in January to hear an appeal by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association arguing Criminal Code provisions preventing assisted suicide were unconstitutional.

News coverage of that appeal will no doubt trigger a national debate. And for so many reasons, Fletcher seems to be the right person to lead that debate.

Freed from the shackles of Privy Council duties (he was unceremoniously dumped in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's last cabinet shuffle), Fletcher has become a much more dynamic public servant.

He has spoken out more on issues of the day and captured media attention by creating bobblehead dolls in his image and then encouraging constituents to photograph them in locations around the world.

And yet, there is still the issue of 1996.

Most spokespeople in the disabled communities vehemently oppose assisted suicide.

Fletcher acknowledged many will wonder whether someone like him -- who, despite his disability became the first quadriplegic elected to the House of Commons -- would have preferred to die when the full extent of his injuries became known.

Fletcher agreed people will want to know. He also agreed as sponsor of the bill, his feelings at that time are material to the matter at hand.

Fletcher paused, and made one more stab at the question that is, given what he has gone on to accomplish, the very essence of hypothetical.

"You know, I don't have an answer."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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