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Canadian Senate committee accepts assisted dying bill but amendments still to come

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick. CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

A bill to expand access to medical assistance in dying has emerged intact from a Senate committee but it’s not likely to remain unscathed for long.

The Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee accepted the bill Wednesday in a matter of minutes, without amendment.

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But it did so only because members agreed in advance to hold off proposing amendments until the legislation returns next week to the Senate for final debate.

And several senators made it clear they fully intend to propose amendments when the time comes.

“We can debate this at length at third reading, we can do amendments at third reading,” said Sen. Don Plett, leader of the Conservative Senate caucus.

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“As I don’t think it is any secret, I am inherently opposed to the entire piece of legislation … There are a few of us. I’m not alone.”

Indeed, it has become clear during the committee’s extensive hearings on the bill that many senators have profound objections — some, like Plett, because they think it goes too far and others because they think it doesn’t go far enough.

Committee members essentially agreed to shelve their concerns for now, in the interests of getting the bill back to the Senate as a whole quickly.

The government wants the legislation passed by Feb. 26 — the thrice-extended, court-imposed deadline for complying with a 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling which struck down a provision that allows assisted dying only for those who are nearing the natural end of their lives.

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Read more: Senate vote on assisted dying bill delayed to February due to Quebec ruling

That deadline could still be in jeopardy if, as seems likely, the Senate makes substantial amendments to the bill. The amended version would have to go back to the House of Commons to decide whether to accept or reject the amendments before shipping it back to the Senate, where senators would have to decide whether to approve the bill even if some or all of their amendments were rejected.

In theory, the bill could bounce repeatedly back and forth between chambers.

The bill would scrap the near-death proviso but retain the concept to create two eligibility tracks for an assisted death: a relaxed set of rules for people who are at the end of life and more stringent rules for those who are not.

It would also explicitly prohibit the procedure for people suffering solely from mental illnesses.

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Some senators and constitutional experts believe that exclusion contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equal treatment under the law, regardless of physical or mental disability.

Other senators and disability rights advocates argue the bill is unconstitutional because it sends the message that the lives of people with disabilities are not of equal value.

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One amendment that will almost certainly be proposed would call on the government to refer the bill to the Supreme Court of Canada for authoritative advice on its constitutionality.

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Among other likely amendments:

  • A sunset clause on the mental illness exclusion, giving the government a year to come up with guidelines for allowing assisted dying for people suffering solely from mental disorders.
  • A clause specifying that discussion of medical assistance in dying must be triggered by the patient, not by medical practitioners.
  • A clause to strengthen the conscience rights of medical practitioners, likely specifying that those who have moral or religious objections to assisted dying do not have to refer a patient to someone who will provide the procedure.
  • Various amendments to restore some of the eligibility criteria relaxed in Bill C-7 for people who are near death.
  • Various amendments to remove some of the more stringent eligibility conditions imposed on people who are not near death.

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