OTTAWA (CNN) — The Liberal government’s decision to whip the vote on an upcoming assisted-dying bill has been put on hold, pending the report of a special parliamentary committee due Feb. 25.
“We still don’t know what they are going to do with their bill,” said Euthanasia Prevention Coalition executive director Alex Schadenberg. “It was very premature to think this is something they could impose on the Liberal caucus.”
Government House Leader Dominic Leblanc told the Globe and Mail Feb. 20 he had suspended a decision on a whipped vote until after the committee’s report is tabled in the House.
Earlier in February both Leblanc and Liberal whip Andrew Leslie had said the vote would be whipped — meaning Liberal MPs would be forced to support the party line — because the bill represents a charter issue.
“Their argument this is a charter issue is false,” said Schadenberg. “The Supreme Court did not go so far as to make it a charter issue. They did strike down the old law, that’s correct.”
“The ‘Charter cloak’ is another obfuscation just like the ‘medical white coat’ on euthanasia,” said McGill University Centre for Medicine, Ethics and the Law founding director Margaret Somerville. “Yes, the Charter applies but that in itself doesn’t tell us what it requires.”
“It’s also a version of the ‘obedience to higher orders’ defence to wrongdoing which the law has never accepted as valid,” Somerville said.
Schadenberg said there would be no need to whip a vote on a tightly crafted bill with adequate protections for the vulnerable. It could mean “the bill is going to be more radical, more wide open than some of the caucus members are willing to accept,” he said.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who is a member of the joint committee, said it was “remarkable” Leblanc would call for a whipped vote before the committee’s report was even finished. “It really raises the spectre that the outcome was predetermined all along and this special committee was nothing more than a façade to allegedly consult broadly but come back with a recommendation that supported the government’s predetermined agenda.”
“It’s tough to have any other conclusion than the fix was in,” Cooper said. At the same time, he stressed his comments are not directed at any individual members of the committee. “They came to the committee in good faith and tried to take their role and their responsibility seriously.”
Cooper pointed out the Supreme Court also called for balancing of the rights of those seeking a physician-assisted death with strong protection for vulnerable people.
“If the government brings in legislations that provides unrestricted and unregulated euthanasia and assisted suicide, they may very well have charter challenges” by disabled persons or persons with psychiatric conditions whose life liberty and security of the person is endangered without “a regime of robust safeguards,” he said.
NDP MP Murray Rankin, who is also on the committee, noted the issues the committee has looked at have been wide-ranging from “advanced directives, to providing access in northern and remote communities and how to make sure there are constitutionally required services appropriate for indigenous people.”
Rankin said he has been trying to ensure the report includes a recommendation implementing a national strategy to make palliative care available across the country.
“I have argued palliative care is part of that package,” Rankin said. “I’m very worried so few can have access to palliative care.”
Rankin said he is proud the NDP will have a free vote on assisted dying. “It’s not for me to say how other parties arrange themselves in this regard,” he said.
“Everybody should be allowed to vote on an unwhipped basis,” said Rankin, noting the matter is a “very sensitive” and goes well beyond the Charter.
“Members of Parliament must not be forced to approve legislation setting out the persons who may have access to euthanasia or the conditions which must be fulfilled for access, when they have ethical or conscience objections to doing so,” Somerville said. “It must be kept in mind that respect for members of Parliament’s freedom of conscience is not only necessary to respect them, it is also required to protect Canadians and can be the last such protection against doing them serious harm or other serious wrongdoing.”
“This is a conscience rights vote, equivalent to capital punishment, abortion, or taking a country to war,” said Campaign Life Coalition Ottawa lobbyist Johanne Brownrigg. “I am concerned the government that allows the Supreme Court to overrule the democratic process in turn will overrule the Supreme Court by disregarding the parameters of the Carter decision.”
Brownrigg said this issue is not like determining where to build a bridge or how much we tax cigarettes.
“This is huge,” she said. “Very few pieces of legislations irrevocably change a society and this is one of them.”