Senate committee urges government to allow advance requests for assisted death

Pre-study process designed to save time so government can meet the court-imposed June 6 deadline for enacting a new law on assisted dying

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

OTTAWA – A Senate committee is signalling that the government should allow advance requests for medical assistance in dying if it wants its controversial legislation on the matter to be approved by the upper chamber.

But while most committee members want 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 Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee has pre-studied the bill and its recommendations are intended to give the government a chance to incorporate them into the bill before it passes the House of Commons.

The pre-study process is aimed at avoiding a scenario in which the Senate amends the bill after it is passed by the Commons, which would mean the bill would be sent back to the Commons to accept or reject the amendments and then ship the bill back to the Senate — a time-consuming game of legislative ping-pong that would ensure the government missed the court-imposed June 6 deadline for enacting a new law on assisted dying.

The committee’s conflicting recommendations underscore the deep divisions the bill has created in the Senate and suggest the government may have difficulty satisfying a majority of senators.

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 on 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.