OTTAWA – Canadians suffering intolerably from non-terminal medical conditions can no longer seek medical assistance to end their lives, thanks to a restrictive new federal law enacted Friday shortly after appointed senators bowed to the will of the elected government.
Bill C-14 was given royal assent less than two hours after senators voted 44-28 to accept the controversial legislation, which limits the right to assisted dying to those whose natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.”
The Senate had amended the bill to include those who aren’t terminally ill, but the Commons voted Thursday to reject the change.
Rather than kill the bill outright or insist on the amendment and bounce it back to the Commons once again, a majority of senators gave up Friday and accepted the government’s version of the bill.
“I am convinced the government is making a serious and cruel mistake by taking away the right to medically assisted dying from a group of patients, those who are not terminally ill and yet suffering terribly,” said newly appointed independent Sen. Andre Pratte.
“But the government will answer to the people for that error and hopefully in the not too distant future the courts will remedy that mistake … I believe we have worked well and done all that we could to warn the government of its error.”
Some other senators, who are morally opposed to assisted dying and would have preferred an even more restrictive law, also voted for the bill in the belief that a law governing assisted death is better than no law at all.
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Non-terminally ill Canadians have had the right to an assisted death since February, when the Supreme Court gave the government an additional four months to craft a new law in response to its landmark Carter decision a year earlier that struck down the ban on assisted dying. In the interim, the court allowed those who met the eligibility criteria laid out in Carter to seek judicial approval for medical help in ending their lives.
In Carter, the Supreme Court directed that medical assistance in dying should be available to clearly consenting, competent adults with “grievous and irremediable” medical conditions that are causing enduring suffering that they find intolerable.
The Trudeau government has taken a much more restrictive approach in C-14, which allows assisted dying only for consenting adults “in an advanced stage of irreversible decline” from a serious and “incurable” disease, illness or disability and for whom natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.”
People facing years of excruciating suffering “won the right to assistance in dying in the Carter decision,” said Josh Paterson, executive director the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, a plaintiff in the Carter case.
“The government’s bill will trap patients in intolerable suffering and takes away their hard-won charter right to choose assistance in dying.”
Independent Liberal Sen. Serge Joyal, who authored the amendment to delete the near-death proviso, tried one last time Friday to remedy what he sees as a fatal flaw that will eventually lead to the legislation being struck down as unconstitutional.
He moved an amendment that would have seen the bill enacted – except for the reasonably foreseeable death provision, which would have been suspended until such time as the Supreme Court ruled on its constitutionality.
That amendment was defeated by a vote of 42-28, with three abstentions.
Nevertheless, numerous senators continued to urge the government to refer the bill to the top court, to test whether its restrictive eligibility criteria complies with the charter of rights and the Carter decision.
“Clearly, this bill will be challenged,” said Conservative Senate leader Claude Carignan, arguing that it’s “immoral” to force grievously ill individuals to launch expensive court challenges that could take years before they’re resolved by the Supreme Court.
If the federal government doesn’t take it upon itself to test the constitutionality of the new law, independent Liberal Sen. Terry Mercer argued that some desperately ill individual and his or her family will have to “go through hell” and likely “go broke” to determine if they have the right to an assisted death.
“We’ve done that to them today,” he said.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has repeatedly rejected referring the bill to the Supreme Court. And in a joint statement Friday with Health Minister Jane Philpott, she reiterated her contention that C-14 is consistent with the charter of rights.
“The legislation strikes the right balance between personal autonomy for those seeking access to medically assisted dying and protecting the vulnerable,” the ministers said.
“It gives dying patients who are suffering intolerably while in decline on a path toward death the choice of a medically assisted death.”
The Canadian Medical Association, which has strongly supported C-14, said it was “pleased that historic federal legislation on medical aid in dying is now in place.”