OTTAWA (CCN) — Euthanasia opponents who hoped the Senate might tighten safeguards and add conscience protection in assisted suicide and euthanasia Bill C-14 are disappointed and concerned.
In fact, they say the Senate has made the bill worse.
The most troublesome amendment for those concerned about vulnerable Canadians is the Senate’s passage of one put forward by Liberal Senator Serge Joyal to remove the bill’s definition of “grievous and irremediable” and replace it with the much broader wording of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision. Bill C-14 as passed by the House of Commons had limited eligibility for assisted suicide or euthanasia to those whose death was “reasonably foreseeable.” The amendment widens the criteria to include those who are chronically ill but not near end of life, among others, putting the disabled at risk.
Senator Denise Batters told journalist the Joyal amendment “basically blew the bill wide open” by striking out 15 lines of the bill.
“It no longer says the condition has to be serious,” said Batters, who also saw her amendment to protect those with underlying mental illness by extending the waiting period to 90 days and adding a psychiatric assessment defeated. Batters also put forward an amendment to restrict eligibility to those who are terminally ill, but that too was defeated.
“(The Joyal amendment) is very bad news,” said Physicians’ Alliance Against Euthanasia Dr. Catherine Ferrier. She noted the Quebec euthanasia requirement requires a person be at end of life. The Bill C-14 wording passed by the House was “already too elastic for our liking.”
“My initial reaction was pure sadness,” said Campaign Life Coalition Ottawa lobbyist Johanne Brownrigg. While most Canadians she said do not realize what is happening, those who are informed and involved, “see the handwriting on the wall, the extremism that has already come into play.”
“We’ve come to the point that Canada is so taken with the individual that it fails to see society, so the greater good of society is going to be the victim of this radical individualism.” She warned that once the “collective wisdom” and “good that has infused Canadian society is gone, it’s gone.”
“I don’t think Canadian people at large really recognize the significance of what’s being discussed here,” said Conservative Senator Betty Unger, a former registered nurse. She pointed out the Senate has had little time to reflect on the bill. “The more Canadians learn about it, the less they like it. We are seeing poll numbers changing.”
Joyal said he put forward the amendment because of the “preponderance” of testimony by constitutional experts, including Peter Hogg, that Bill C-14 is unconstitutional because it limited access to categories of people the Supreme Court said had a right to a physician-assisted death.
Joyal, however, also supported an amendment by the Conservative leader in the Senate, Senator Claude Carignan, that would have required the additional safeguard of a judicial authorization for all those not near end of life. Advocates for the disabled have asked for an arm’s length judicial or tribunal authorization as an important safeguard, but this amendment was defeated.
Batters said she believes Bill C-14 is constitutional, but needs more safeguards. Constitutional lawyer Gerald Chipeur, who also testified before the Senate, also said he believes Bill C-14 as passed by the House of Commons is constitutional.
Senators also rejected an amendment to protect the conscience rights of individuals and institutions to not participate in assisted suicide and euthanasia or to refer, put forward by Conservative Senator Don Plett.
Plett said many provinces are “quite clear they are not going to provide conscientious protection when it comes to referrals.” He expressed concerns many doctors will retire or stop practising.
“This is something that needed to pass, and for them to just strike this down out of hand I find quite frustrating,” he said.
Plett said the Liberal government will accept the bill if the Senate passes the bill with the Joyal amendment. “I believe my conscientious protection amendment would have passed had it passed here.”
The government has to find the right balance between two competing rights, that of the patient seeking “medical aid in dying,” and the right to object of the health care professional, he said. The courts use the principle of “minimal impairment,” Joyal said, noting the provinces could look at the Quebec model that requires those who get a request for medical aid in dying to inform a central or regional registry if they will not carry it out. Joyal also said institutions receiving public money should not have the right to object. “If it’s government money, it’s neutral money,” he said.
Ferrier said the provisions in Bill C-14 in the preamble referring to conscience rights and in the body of the bill saying, “ ‘nothing in the federal law compels anyone,’ are worth practically nothing.”
The Plett amendment would have made compelling someone a criminal offence, she said. “That would have been fantastic.”
Ferrier said she is not surprised the bill didn’t pass. “The mood in the government right now is the ‘right to be killed’ is a fundament right. The whole thing of doctors’ freedom of conscience is not important to them.”
“The whole notion of conscience rights is something every single Canadian should take to the streets over,” said Brownrigg, adding these rights are “hand in glove with freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”
Physicians, nurses, members of Parliament “are not agents of the state,” she said. “We can’t become automatons. This is precisely what happened in Nazi Germany.”
One bright light, however, is the passage of Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton’s amendment to include a palliative care assessment as a requirement for an assisted death. “It’s not perfect,” said Unger, who seconded the amendment. It’s one more thing that “has to be checked off the list” so someone can be eligible for an assisted death. Unger said she hoped the assessment might help some patients change their minds.
The Senate began debating the bill on third reading June 8 and it continued into the week of June 13.
Chipeur said the passage of Bill C-14 “whether in any form” either that passed by the House of Commons or as amended by the Senate is “critical for the safeguards that are there.”
“Over time we can address any deficiencies that become apparent,” he said, noting the federal law will only be the minimum. The provinces and territories can “layer on” other limitations the public deems important for protecting the vulnerable.
Bill C-14 needs the approval of the House of Commons, the Senate and the Queen, via the Governor General, to pass, said Chipeur. Otherwise the bill dies.
If the Bill C-14 goes to the House of Commons amended, the House can choose to accept all of the amendments and pass the bill on to the Governor General for royal assent, or accept some of the amendments and pass it back to the Senate. “Let’s say the House of Commons accepts some of the amendments and not others, the Senate will know the bottom line from the House.”
“While there’s a possibility of a ping pong game, I just don’t believe that will happen,” he said.
Joyal, when asked by a journalist whether the Senate was making social policy and legislating, defended the role of the unelected Senators in protecting constitutional rights and those of minorities.
Chipeur said longtime senators like Joyal “have a good sense of what the constitutional conventions are.”
“It’s possible if the House and the Senate cannot see eye to eye, there is no doubt we do have a constitutional crisis if you will, have constitutional gridlock,” he said.
If that happens, it’s possible a conference of the Houses of the Commons and the Senate will be called, he said.
The last time such a conference was in 1947.