Government sparks furor after cutting short debate on assisted dying bill

The Liberals imposed a time limit on second reading debate of the bill Wednesday

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA – The Trudeau government cut short debate and forced a vote in principle Wednesday on its proposed new law on medically assisted dying, enraging opposition MPs who said they’re being deprived of the right to speak on a crucial life-and-death issue.

The Liberals used their majority Wednesday to impose a time limit on second reading debate of the bill.

But while the opposition parties were united in denouncing the restriction on debate, MPs from all parties came together later Wednesday to easily give the bill approval in principle. The bill passed by a vote of 235-75, with support from most Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs as well as 20 Conservatives and Green Leader Elizabeth May.

Lone Liberal Robert-Falcon Ouellette and solitary New Democrat Christine Moore joined 73 Conservatives, including interim leader Rona Ambrose, in opposing it.

The bill must still be examined by the Commons justice committee, which could recommend amendments, before returning to the Commons for more debate and a final vote.

Prior to the vote, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould argued that limiting debate and getting the bill quickly to committee is necessary to ensure the bill passes by June 6, the deadline for enacting a new law set by the Supreme Court, which struck down the ban on assisted dying last year.

However, the Commons justice committee and the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee have already begun simultaneously conducting hearings on the bill – not waiting for it to pass second reading in the Commons – so it’s not clear why MPs could not have continued debating it at least until those committee hearings wrap up.

The move to impose time allocation set off a furor in the Commons.

“I am absolutely outraged,” said Alberta Conservative MP Blaine Calkins, adding that his constituents have “very impassioned views” on assisted dying which they expected him to express during the debate.

The Liberal government has lengthened by two years the environmental hearings for something as “innocuous” as a proposed pipeline, Calkins argued, “yet they’re only going to let one in four MPs at second reading on this bill talk about something as important as the sanctity of human life.”

“This is an abomination and it violates my privileges as a member of Parliament.”

Wilson-Raybould countered that opposition parties rejected an offer earlier this week that would have allowed for “unlimited” debate after midnight. And she maintained it would be “irresponsible” to miss the court deadline.

“If we do not have legislation in place as of June 6, there will be no safeguards in place, the medical practitioners will have uncertainty with respect to the eligibility criteria around somebody who wants to access medical assistance in dying,” she told the Commons.

But Green leader May argued that the deadline could be missed “with no harm done” since the parameters for assisted dying set out in the Supreme Court’s ruling would take effect until such time as a new law was enacted. She said the “harm to democracy” caused by limiting debate is greater than the risk of missing the deadline by taking the time to do the legislation right.

In striking down the ban on medically assisted dying, the Supreme Court recognized the right to assisted death for clearly consenting adults with “grievous and irremediable” medical conditions who are enduring physical or mental suffering that they find intolerable.

The federal government last month introduced a bill that takes a more restrictive approach. It would require a person to be a consenting adult, at least 18 years of age, 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.”

All parties have promised free votes on the bill.

Ambrose said Wednesday that she’d vote against the bill at second reading, in hopes that it will be amended at committee to strengthen protection of the conscience rights of medical practitioners who refuse to help a patient die and improve safeguards for people with disabilities.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said he’d vote for the bill but reiterated his call for the government to refer the new law, once passed, to the Supreme Court to see if it respects the court’s ruling and does not violate the charter of rights.

But at a news conference to mark the six-month anniversary of his government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not appear overly enthusiastic about amending the bill and ruled out altogether a reference to the top court.

He defended the restrictive approach taken by the government, arguing legalization of assisted dying “is a big change for the country” that needs to be undertaken cautiously. He expressed confidence that the bill complies with the court ruling and the charter.

“I do not agree that every time we have a bill that we should go to the court and ask them if they believe our bill is charter compliant. To do so would be to undermine the government’s role,” Trudeau added.

The bill may get a rougher ride in the Senate than it got Wednesday in the Commons, judging from the tough grilling senators gave Wilson-Raybould when she appeared before the legal affairs committee.

Some, including Liberals Serge Joyal and James Cowan, suggested the bill would not stand up to a charter challenge because it is too restrictive. Others, including Conservatives Don Plett and Denise Batters, said it fails to adequately protect the conscience rights of doctors or to provide safeguards for vulnerable individuals, such as those with mental illnesses.

Frances Lankin, an independent senator recently appointed by Trudeau, expressed concern that the bill would not allow advance requests for a medically assisted death from individuals suffering from conditions such as dementia that will eventually render them incapable of giving informed consent.

“I generally support this but it just doesn’t go far enough,” Lankin told Wilson-Raybould.