Law's Jocelyn Downie to conduct groundbreaking end‑of‑life research with Trudeau Fellowship

- October 20, 2015

Trudeau Fellow Jocelyn Downie. (Provided photo)
Trudeau Fellow Jocelyn Downie. (Provided photo)

This past February, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Criminal Code of Canada prohibitions on physician-assisted death. Now Canadian adults who have a “grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes intolerable suffering” will be able to get a doctor’s help in dying.

The Supreme Court suspended its ruling for 12 months, with the decision taking effect in February 2016, to allow the government enough time to amend its laws.

“I think the court did a spectacular job,” says Jocelyn Downie, Schulich School of Law professor and recent recipient of a prestigious Trudeau Fellowship to research law, policy and practice around end-of-life care in Canada.

“It’s a brilliant, thoughtful, careful, and responsible judgement,” she says of the decision. “Up until now, people have been in oppositional camps around whether we should allow physician-assisted death. Now we can work together to figure out the how.”

Informing a legislative transformation

Prof. Downie, cross-appointed in the Faculty of Medicine, is the first Dalhousie faculty member (and, indeed, the first in Nova Scotia) to receive a Trudeau Fellowship.

The fellowships were established by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation in 2003 to support original initiatives and innovative projects in the social sciences and humanities that would not necessarily receive support through traditional funding mechanisms. It’s part of the foundation’s mandate to celebrate engagement in pubic issues that are important to Canadians.

Prof. Downie, who is also a faculty associate of Dalhousie’s Health Law Institute, will receive $225,000 over three years and has already begun her research associated with the fellowship. In June, she gathered a group of international end-of-life experts in Amsterdam to discuss how to best track incidences of assisted dying in Canada. “We need baseline data to understand what’s happening and how to track it,” she says.

During the summer, Prof. Downie also updated, a website designed to make information about end-of-life law and policy available and accessible to health-care providers, lawyers, the media, and the public.

“The next phase is to go global,” she says. “I’m looking forward to developing sister sites in other countries.”

Better end-of-life care for Canadians

Prof. Downie’s Trudeau Fellowship research will also go beyond physician-assisted death.

“There are so many crucial issues that we haven’t yet resolved,” she says. “Think, for example, about a situation in which a gravely ill patient’s doctor wants to stop life-sustaining treatment but the patient’s family wants treatment to continue. They disagree over what is in the patient’s best interests – but whose decision is it?”

Over the course of the Trudeau Fellowship, Prof. Downie will bring together small teams of academics and practitioners from law, ethics, and health care. Together, they will wrestle with complex and controversial issues and propose changes to law, policy, and practice, all the while with a focus on the ultimate goal of helping society care deeply and effectively for the dying.

“We can be world leaders in the responsible regulation of physician-assisted death, if we look at what everyone else is doing, learn from it, and improve on it.”


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