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Euthanasia legal vacuum looms as deadline approaches

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — A legal vacuum similar to that surrounding abortion looms as euthanasia and assisted suicide Bill C-14 is predicted not to pass into law by the Supreme Court’s June 6 deadline.
The threat has a coalition representing Canadians with disabilities worried.

“It’s dead certain the June 6 deadline will not be satisfied,” said Conservative MP Michael Cooper, vice-co-chair of the special joint Parliamentary Committee on Physician Assisted Dying, after a series of Conservative amendments to strengthen safeguards and protect conscience rights of health care professionals and institutions was defeated May 30 in the House of Commons. “That was apparent before the House rose last week.”

“It’s really remarkable the Minister of Justice has not seen fit to bring forward an application to the Supreme Court to ask for a further extension,” Cooper said, adding six weeks or even 30 days might be long enough to get the bill passed.

“The absence of legislation means a vacuum, an absence of safeguards,” said Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, who saw four proposed amendments defeated. But, he added, Bill C-14 as it is would be “the institutionalization of a vacuum in the absence of safeguards.”

“The reason why I voted against this legislation is because I see no meaningful improvement,” he said. “I would have supported a bill that put forward meaningful safeguards, even if it didn’t go fully in the direction I wanted it to go.”

“We are in a position of dealing with two possible vacuums,” he said. “It’s hard to see how we’re any better off with this legislation.”

On May 31, the day the House of Commons was scheduled to vote on Bill C-14 on third reading and pass the legislation on to the Senate, a coalition of groups representing Canadians with disabilities made a plea to parliamentarians to pass the bill.

“Today, disabled Canadians, speaking through our national organizations and with our supporters, and on the basis of decades of research, policy analysis and debate, call upon our parliamentarians to ensure that the minimal safeguards contained within Bill C-14 are legislated by June 6,” said a news release signed by 40 organizations, including the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, the Canadian Association for Community Living, the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, and L’Arche Canada.

The release noted the struggle disabled Canadians have to obtain even basic supports. “Most perniciously, we are made vulnerable by the quiet and persistent reminders that our needs are costly and burdensome,” it said. “At root is the insidious idea that our disabilities are too onerous for society, our families and even ourselves to bear. This is why a system of physician-assisted dying without robust safeguards will jeopardize the lives of vulnerable Canadians.”

It noted disabled persons face the threat of inducement through: coercion by others; hopelessness; psychological pressure from health care providers; and lack of information or access to support and alternatives.

“While Bill C-14 does not fully address all the risks of error and abuse that arise from these realities, it does recognize that they exist and that safeguards are essential to protect the lives of vulnerable Canadians,” it said.

The Conservative amendments voted down May 30 included the safeguard of a prior judicial review before euthanasia or assisted suicide can take place; clauses to protect freedom of conscience and religion of health care professionals to not participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide either directly or indirectly and to ensure they will not “be deprived of any benefit, or be subject to any obligation or sanction” for exercising their Charter rights; and safeguards to ensure underlying mental health challenges are addressed. Justice Committee Conservative vice-chair Ted Falk called the vote disappointing but expected.

Cooper said evidence before both the Joint Committee and the Justice Committee revealed two physicians or two nurse practitioners are not “able to evaluate the capacity to consent when a person has a mental illness.”

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee had already submitted a series of recommendations to the House of Commons May 18. Senator Denise Batters, a member of that committee, has told CCN she hoped the House would pass the Senate amendments before returning Bill C-14 to the Senate.

“The Liberal government can work in a number of these amendments,” she said. “If they pass it as is, it will be no surprise if it comes to the Senate and we have the exact same recommendations.”
The House of Commons, however, did not address any of the Senate amendments ahead of time.

“The bill will now go to the Senate and the Senate will raise many of the same issues,” said Falk, adding the Senate will “also make sure individuals have proper access to palliative care.”

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