Leslyn Lewis Needs a Lesson on Assisted Dying – and Democracy

As a candidate for the Conservative leadership, Leslyn Lewis hoped to “stop the expansion of new categories for Medically Assisted Death.”Social conservatives like Lewis are angry that party leaders prevent MPs from “voting their conscience” on a list of issues, including assisted dying, abortion, and LGBTQ rights. In their minds, whipping these votes is undemocratic and disrespectful.We think this gets things exactly backwards. The real threat to democracy comes from so-cons who refuse to deal with value conflicts in a democratic way.For example, in a recent letter to the editor on assisted dying, a socially conservative writer states that, “It is never acceptable to hasten or facilitate the death of a human being, no matter how sick or disabled they might be.”Note how confidently the writer presents her views on the subject as an absolute truth. This may impress people who share these views, but it misrepresents how values work. While facts can be true or false, values are more like a lens that people use to interpret facts. They say something about how the world looks to us, not how it is.Take the debate over mask-wearing. While it is a fact that masks reduce the spread of the virus, values shape how we feel about wearing one. And people with different values see this differently. Values thus are a least partly subjective – but that is a conclusion that so-cons are loath to draw because they want to reserve the right to declare the values they really care about as truths. As history shows, this is a formula for conflict and division.In the late 17th century, Protestants and Catholics in Europe fought a long and bloody war over which side were the true Christians. Eventually, people realized that if they agreed to treat religious values as a private choice (“matters of conscience”), and took a few basic steps to accommodate one another, they could co-exist peacefully.This is now known as the Principle of Tolerance and four hundred years later it remains a cornerstone of democracy. Democracies like ours need a fair and reasonable way to manage value conflicts and tolerance is the key, as we see from current discussion on assisted dying.Thanks to huge advances in medicine, we can now keep people alive much longer than ever before and through all kinds of ailments. But if this sounds like a triumph, it is a two-edged sword. Too many people have had to watch a spouse wither away from terminal cancer or nurse a loved one whose mind is disintegrating under the onslaught of Alzheimer's. Today, whole buildings are filled with people who can no longer care for themselves or who may not even know where (or who) they are.Only a few decades ago, most Canadians viewed the Sanctity of Life much like the letter-writer above, but these new experiences have changed how we see death and dying. A recent poll finds that 82 per cent of Canadians believe that people diagnosed with a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including those with dementia, should be allowed to make advance requests for medical assistance in dying.As Canadians live through these changes, they are learning from them. They talk to one another about the challenges and describe how they felt, how they responded, and how successfully they coped. This learning is slowly being consolidated into a new and evolving social narrative – a new ethos – that will help organize our shared experiences and redefine our values for the future.In the Carter decision, the Supreme Court took a big step in this direction, recognizing that our right to Life, Liberty and Security of the Person includes the right to die with dignity, and to seek the help of a physician. This ruling was meant to define a new legal framework for lawmakers, but Ottawa's first effort to put it into practice was disconcertingly timid and, predictably, failed a charter challenge in the courts.The Trudeau government is now working to fix this, and possibly other issues around assisted dying. The court has set a deadline of December 18. This time round, it is showing a little more courage and looking for more guidance from Canadians. For example, the government launched an online survey on assisted dying and held roundtables in cities across the country. The survey drew about 300,000 responses.So-cons are certainly right that parliamentary votes have an important role to play in this process, but the lesson here is that such votes should be viewed as part of a larger public dialogue about Canadians' changing values. They should be guided by a spirit of tolerance and draw on the country's lived experience to help establish new norms and guidelines, whether the issue is assisted dying, abortion, or LGBTQ rights.Unfortunately, this is something social conservatives will never accept. It is not enough for them that our democracy guarantees their freedom to live by the more traditional values they espouse. They want more. They want everyone to be bound by their values – and that is a serious affront to democracy.As has been widely noted, so-cons played a decisive role in helping Erin O'Toole's win the Conservative leadership. Now they will expect him to give their MPs a strong voice on value issues. That would be bad for the Party and bad for democracy.In our view, MPs who show no respect for the Principle of Tolerance shouldn't have a free vote on such issues – and party leaders have a public duty to keep them on a very short leash.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.