OTTAWA (CCN) — Euthanasia and assisted suicide Bill C-14 passed second reading in the Senate June 3, sending the legislation to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee.
The committee, however, had already studied the bill and submitted a set of amendments to MPs in the House of Commons on May 18. Though these amendments were not specifically voted upon, similar ones put forward by Conservative MPs protecting conscience rights and improving safeguards were voted down by wide majorities on May 30.
When Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould appeared before the Senate June 1, Senator Denise Batters, a member of the legal and constitutional affairs committee, asked her why the government had ignored the committee’s recommendations.
“Our Senate Legal Committee’s pre-study heard from 66 witnesses and took 20 hours of committee study,” Batters said. “We concluded with 10 recommendations for amendment of Bill C-14, five of which were even unanimously agreed to by our Senate Legal Committee, a committee which contains Conservatives, Liberals and one independent.”
The justice minister said the government had considered the pre-study’s recommended additional safeguards, but they have to balanced against individual autonomy.
With the June 6 Supreme Court deadline for the Carter decision to go into effect, striking down portions of the Criminal Code outlawing assisted suicide and opening the way for outright euthanasia, the Senate is under pressure to pass the bill so that some form of consistent legal framework is available for the whole country.
Bill C-14 passed to the Senate May 31 by a 186-137 vote in the House of Commons. It is uncertain how long the Senate committee will debate it before sending it back for more debate on third reading, perhaps with amendments. If the Senate passes the bill with amendments, it will have to go back to the House of Commons again.
The justice minister warned of the country having no consistent legal framework if the bill is not passed.
“Medical assistance in dying is different from all other forms of medical care in that in the absence of an exemption, it is otherwise criminal conduct of the most serious nature,” Wilson-Raybould told the Senate. “Bill C-14 creates a series of exemptions from otherwise applicable criminal offences so that physicians and other medical providers can help, without fear of criminal prosecution, suffering individuals who have chosen to have a peaceful medically assisted death.”
She said the court decision recognized the competing values of a patient’s autonomy and that of the sanctity or value of human life.
“The court acknowledged that giving someone the ability to legally end human life creates risks for vulnerable individuals, risks which did not exist under the previous absolute prohibition,” she said.
She also explained why the bill did not include advanced directives for those with dementia diagnoses, pointing out jurisdictions that allow them, such as the Netherlands, find doctors unwilling to carry them out. Some issues like this and others are being postponed for further study. “We need to take the time to get this right. Getting it wrong would result in the deliberate loss of human life,” she said.
The justice minister said the government would be open to “thoughtful amendments.”
Health Minister Jane Philpott told the Senate June 1 the bill’s language recognizes conscience rights of providers but in a federal system, federal laws can’t go too far, or they are “rendered invalid.”
“To suggest otherwise could simply provide false reassurance,” she said, noting under the Constitution, the provinces and territories are responsible for the implementation of conscience rights of institutions and providers.
The Senate debated the Bill for a day and a half before voting on second reading to send it to committee. Though there were senators opposed, the division was not recorded.
Opinions varied from those of Senator Betty Unger and others who urged the invoking of the notwithstanding clause to give more time to craft a bill. Unger, Batters and others also oppose euthanasia on principle.
“As Cardinal Thomas Collins from Toronto recently said, the fact that we have to call it medical assistance in dying shows that there’s something wrong,” Unger said. “Why don’t we call it what it is, killing?”
She accused the Trudeau government of using misleading language to cloud the issue.
“We are creating a category of legal homicide,” she said. “If any of my fellow senators think this is an exaggeration, then they clearly do not understand the legislation.”
Other senators, however, challenged the bill as unconstitutional because some categories of people are left ineligible. Several senators brought up advanced directives and told personal stories of dealing with dying parents and relatives.
“We must not forget that we are not elected,” said Senator Murray Sinclair, a former judge and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sinclair was appointed April 2. “We are not accountable to the citizens of this country for our actions in the same way as those who are elected.”
He compared the Senate to the Council of the Elders in an Aboriginal community, there to give advice and help settle differences.
“In other words, the people elected to govern have exercised their right to govern in this way,” he said. “We must not interfere easily with that right.”
Sinclair advised senators not to see themselves as “opponents or proponents of the government in power.”
“With the greatest of respect to those who think otherwise, we were not appointed to govern,” he said. “We were appointed primarily to review and to advise, but with an inherent power to prevent government abuses.”