OTTAWA – The Trudeau government’s controversial assisted dying bill made its official debut in the Senate on Wednesday and the initial reviews were devastating.
Conservative, independent Liberal and independent senators alike panned the legislation as they grilled first Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and then Health Minister Jane Philpott for four hours in the upper house.
The depth and breadth of senators’ objections suggest there’s little likelihood the bill will be passed by the Senate without some major amendments, which would take the government well past June 6 – the day on which the ban on medical assistance in dying will be formally lifted in accordance with last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling.
Philpott went repeatedly into what she called “plead mode,” urging senators to pass the bill by the deadline or risk having doctors refuse to provide assisted dying due to the legal uncertainty surrounding it.
That prompted independent Liberal Sen. Mobina Jaffer to go into a plead mode of her own.
“I’m sure all my colleagues have heard from thousands of Canadians with great pleas about (how) this is not the right legislation,” Jaffer told Philpott.
Sen. Art Eggleton, another independent Liberal, said it would be “better to get this right than to get it fast.”
The most frequent objection concerned the government’s insistence that only those who are near death will be eligible for medical assistance to end their lives. Numerous senators said that flies in the face of the Supreme Court ruling and the charter of rights.
“You are excluding those who are not at the end of their lives and you’re forcing those individuals to perhaps stop feeding themselves, to mutilate themselves or harm themselves to make themselves eligible for medical assistance in dying,” said Conservative Senate leader Claude Carignan.
Newly-appointed independent Sen. Andre Pratte said the bill will allow those near death to shorten their lives by a few weeks or months while forcing those who aren’t near death to suffer for years.
“From a logical and human perspective, it seems indefensible to me,” he said.
Conservative Sen. Kelvin Ogilvie said the bill offers no protection for “the very most vulnerable Canadians, those who are suffering horribly from a disease that may last for years.”
“How can you justify such a possible cruel interpretation (of the court ruling)?” he asked Wilson-Raybould.
In what’s known as the Carter decision, the Supreme Court ruled that consenting adults have a right to seek medical help to end their lives if they have “grievous and irremediable” medical conditions that are causing enduring suffering that they deem intolerable.
Bill C-14 sets out considerably more restrictive eligibility criteria, allowing assisted dying only for clearly consenting adults “in an advanced stage of irreversible decline” from a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability and for whom natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.”
The children of Kay Carter, the woman at the centre of the court case, have said their 89-year-old mother would not have been eligible for an assisted death under C-14 because she suffered from a non-terminal illness – spinal stenosis – and could have lived for some years. But Wilson-Raybould disputed that, arguing that Carter’s death was reasonably foreseeable “due to her age and frailty.”
That drew a sharp response from newly appointed independent Sen. Frances Lankin, who suggested the bill could lead to an inadvertent “further devaluation of the life of seniors” who are considered “old enough to be dispensed of.” By the government’s reasoning, she said a 90-year-old suffering from a serious medical condition would be eligible for an assisted death whereas a 55-year-old with the same condition would not.
“There is something so fundamentally wrong and discriminatory in the application of this,” said Lankin, a former Ontario health minister.
Conservative Sen. Nancy Ruth said the bill’s “overarching failure is that it does not trust us, it does not trust Canadians to make the best choices for ourselves.”
Some senators also questioned why the government is refusing to allow advance requests for assisted dying by those diagnosed with a competence-eroding condition like dementia.
But the ministers heard from the other side of the equation as well, with some senators objecting that the bill already goes too far. Several demanded explicit protection of “conscience rights” for medical practitioners who refuse to take part in providing an assisted death.
Wilson-Raybould reiterated her view that the bill strikes the right balance among competing interests, respecting an individual’s personal autonomy while protecting the vulnerable and respecting life. Allowing assisted death for those who are suffering but not near the end of life could have an impact on public suicide prevention campaigns, she added.
Both ministers said they’re open to considering “thoughtful” amendments, although all substantive amendments proposed by opposition parties in the House of Commons were rejected.
If the Senate were to pass any amendments to the bill, it would have to be sent back to the Commons, which would have to decide whether to accept or reject the amendments. Theoretically, the bill could bounce back and forth between parliamentary chambers for weeks.
Even without amendments, the bill won’t be put to a vote in the upper house by Monday’s deadline. Carignan has predicted the vote won’t happen before the end of next week, at the earliest.