OTTAWA – Senators say there’s no way they’ll pass the federal government’s medically assisted dying bill by the court-imposed deadline of June 6 – and they may not pass it at all if it isn’t amended to allow advance requests from those diagnosed with competence-eroding conditions like dementia.
That double-barrelled warning Tuesday was the clearest sign yet that the controversial legislation is in for a rocky ride when it gets to the upper house.
It is expected to pass the House of Commons relatively easily by Thursday, although procedural wrangling among the three main parties delayed the start of final debate on the bill until Tuesday afternoon, 24 hours later than the government had hoped.
Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc eventually gave notice that the government will impose Wednesday a time limit on the debate.
But the government has few levers to get its way in the unelected Senate, where independents dominate and there are no longer any senators directly affiliated with the ruling Liberals.
The one hammer the government had held over the Senate was the deadline, with ministers issuing dire warnings that if the bill was not passed by June 6, there would be a legal void in which assisted dying would available without any safeguards.
But at a meeting Tuesday, Conservative Senate Leader Claude Carignan and independent Liberal Leader James Cowan informed the government’s representative, Sen. Peter Harder, that it’s simply not possible for the bill to get through all legislative stages, including committee hearings, in the upper house in just one week. That’s all the time that would be left to deal with the bill, assuming it is sent to the Senate at the end of this week, because Parliament is not sitting next week.
“There’s no way that it’ll get through … by the sixth of June,” Cowan said in an interview after the meeting with Harder, adding that the government isn’t happy about it but “they accept the fact it’s not going to happen.”
“It’s a very serious bill and we can’t rush it.”
Carignan said he thinks the Senate will need an additional two weeks to deal with the bill. Both he and Cowan shrugged off the government’s warnings about a legal void if the deadline is not met.
They pointed out that the Supreme Court’s ruling set parameters for assisted dying that will apply in the absence of a federal law and that provincial colleges of physicians and surgeons have issued guidelines as well.
Meanwhile, the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, which has conducted a pre-study of the bill before it’s passed by the Commons, recommended 10 amendments that the committee chair, Conservative Sen. Bob Runciman, said the Commons “would be wise to consider” before passing the bill and sending it on to the Senate.
“The report is an indication that senators have some serious reservations about parts of this bill,” he said.
If the government does not allow advance directives, Conservative Sen. Vern White, a committee member, said “it’s to the legislation’s peril.” He said it’s a “great question” whether the Senate would pass the bill without that amendment.
The committee’s recommendations are contradictory, underscoring the deep divisions the bill has created in the Senate and suggesting the government may have difficulty satisfying a majority of senators.
While the majority of committee members wants the bill to be more permissive for those diagnosed with dementia and other capacity-eroding conditions, it is simultaneously urging the government to be more restrictive generally about who is eligible for assisted death.
The majority recommends that assisted dying be provided only to those with terminal illnesses, although that would appear to fly in the face of last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling.
The top court recognized the right to an assisted death for clearly consenting adults with “grievous and irremediable” medical conditions who are enduring physical or mental suffering that they find intolerable.
The government is already taking a more restrictive approach than the court, contending that assisted death should be available only for clearly consenting adults “in an advanced stage of irreversible decline” from a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability and for whom a natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.”
The committee issued its recommendations Tuesday so that the government would have a chance to incorporate them into the bill before it passes the Commons.
If the recommendations are ignored, senators could choose to amend the bill after it is passed by the Commons, which would mean the bill would have to be sent back to the Commons to accept or reject the amendments and then shipped back to the Senate – a time-consuming game of legislative ping-pong that would take the government well past the June 6 deadline.
Among the recommendations accepted unanimously or by a majority of committee members:
– Remove any mention of the government’s promise to consider or to launch independent reviews related to extending assisted dying to mature minors and those who are suffering solely from mental illness.
– Maintain the requirement of a 15-day waiting period between the day a person requests an assisted death and the day it is provided and increase that waiting period to 90 days for those with a mental health condition.
– Strengthen conscience rights, explicitly adding a provision that no health professional or health care institution is compelled to provide assistance in dying.
The committee also raises “serious concern” that the bill would allow lethal drugs prescribed for a person granted an assisted death to be kept for months or years before being used, with no safeguard that the patient’s express consent is given at the time of death.