Senators likely to propose major amendments to assisted dying bill

It’s out of the political frying pan and into the fire today for the Trudeau government’s bill to expand access to medically assisted dying.

Opening debate on Bill C-7 begins tonight in the Senate, where the government has no control over independent-minded, less-partisan senators who appear determined to amend the legislation.

In the House of Commons, the minority government faced delay tactics from a majority of Conservative MPs who vehemently oppose expanding assisted dying to intolerably suffering people who are not already near death.

But with the Bloc Québécois and NDP backing the bill, its eventual passage last Thursday was assured. The government did not have to make any significant amendments and it faced no political pressure to do more to help Canadians access medical assistance in dying (MAID).

That is about to change in the Senate, where the government will face a flurry of amendments from both sides of the equation: senators who think the bill is unconstitutional because it goes too far and those who think it’s unconstitutional because it doesn’t go far enough.

Sen. Chantal Petitclerc, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said she expects the debate “will be passionate, it will be intense, it will be thorough.” Adding urgency to the situation, senators are being pressed to put the bill through all the legislative hoops by Friday, the court-imposed deadline for revamping Canada’s assisted dying regime.

Justice Minister David Lametti last week asked the court for more time, until Feb. 26, but the court has already granted two extensions and there’s no guarantee it will agree to a third.

“It is true that it is a matter of life and death and we cannot rush it,” Petitclerc, a member of the Independent Senators Group, said in an interview. “What I’m telling my colleagues is let’s be efficient, let’s be thorough, let’s be productive … [but] let’s not block it.”

Senator hopeful debate can wrap Wednesday

With the Senate sitting for extended hours, Petitclerc is hopeful the initial debate can wrap up by Wednesday, whereupon the bill will be sent back to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, which has already conducted a week-long pre-study of the bill.

The committee has heard from dozens of witnesses, but Petitclerc expects more will be called. She, for one, wants to hear from more legal experts about the constitutionality of the bill. The committee must then give clause-by-clause scrutiny to the bill, with members proposing and voting on amendments, before sending it back to the full Senate for final debate and likely more proposed amendments.

Getting all that done in five days will be a tall order, particularly given how passionate and deeply divided senators are on the subject of MAID.

The bill is intended to bring the law into compliance with a September 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling. Justice Christine Baudouin struck down the provision in the law that allows medically assisted dying only for those whose natural death is reasonably foreseeable.

Bill C-7 would scrap the near-death requirement but would retain the concept to create two eligibility tracks for MAID: somewhat relaxed rules for people who are close to death and more stringent rules for those who aren’t.

Amendments expected in Senate

Judging from concerns raised by senators during the pre-study, Petitclerc expects a number of significant amendments to be proposed.

Among the most likely possibilities:

  • A sunset clause on the bill’s proposed explicit prohibition on MAID for people suffering solely from mental illnesses. Senators with extensive legal backgrounds, such as former judge Pierre Dalphond and Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan, believe excluding an entire class of people violates equality rights. Such an amendment would be vigorously opposed by other senators, such as Conservative Sen. Denise Batters, who fear it would amount to state-sanctioned suicide for people whose illness makes them prone to depression.

  • Some senators believe the more stringent eligibility rules the bill would impose on people who are not near death are inconsistent with the court ruling that struck down the foreseeable death provision as a breach of equality rights and the right to life, liberty and security of the person. They may attempt to remove or reduce those requirements. But other senators, Batters and Conservative Senate leader Don Plett among them, are expected to propose even more stringent safeguards to, as they see it, protect vulnerable people from being coerced — either directly or indirectly through societal attitudes and a lack of support services — into receiving MAID.

  • Add a clause specifying that doctors and nurses can’t raise the subject of MAID until a patient initiates a discussion about it. Plett wrung a promise out of Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough that the government would seriously consider such an amendment, which she said she’d personally support.

  • Require longer than the proposed 90 days for assessing a MAID request from a person who is not near death.

  • Require that persons not near death be given access to counselling services, mental health and disability support services, community services and palliative care — not just be informed of such options as proposed in the bill.

  • Restore some of the safeguards the bill proposes to eliminate for those who are near death, including the 10-day waiting period between being approved for MAID and receiving the procedure, and requiring two witnesses instead of just one.

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