The federal government is backing away from a Conservative MP's suggestion it would ask the Supreme Court of Canada for an extension of the deadline given to Parliament to respond to the court's ruling on doctor-assisted dying.
Bob Dechert, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, told MPs the government would consider asking the court to give Parliament longer than a year to craft new legislation after the court struck down a ban on physician-assisted suicide in certain cases.
"I don't think that we should be rushed into doing something that's inappropriate — not taking the time to properly, carefully consider it and hear all opinions, simply because there is a 12-month imposed deadline," said Dechert.
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"I think there are opportunities for the government to ask the court to ask for an extension and given the circumstances of the issue and this particular year, I think the court would be very likely to consider those arguments."
But he later backtracked, saying the government intends to meet the deadline. Dechert said he'd been speaking as a lawyer, not on behalf of the government, when he earlier predicted that the court would "most likely" grant an extension.
MPs were debating an opposition day motion brought by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, a motion brought on a day allowed for an opposition party to control the House agenda. Trudeau's motion called for the creation of a special parliamentary committee to consult experts and Canadians on a response to the court's ruling earlier this month.
Conservatives vote down motion
The Liberals wanted the committee up and running by March 11 to report back to the House by July 31 with a proposed legislative framework.
Time is especially limited this year because the House only sits for 12 weeks before breaking for the summer, after which MPs will be campaigning for the Oct. 19 election.
The motion was defeated by a vote of 146 to 132. Conservative MP Steven Fletcher was the only member on the government side of the House to support the motion.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to give a straight answer when asked whether the government may use the constitutional notwithstanding clause to override the court's ruling.
He said the government intends to launch "comprehensive" public consultations on the matter before deciding how to respond to the court ruling. But the government gave only a vague outline for how that consultation process will work.
Harper's office later sent a clarification noting "the government is not contemplating the use of the notwithstanding clause."
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled earlier this month that Canadians under specific circumstances have the right to have a doctor help them die. The court gave Parliament a year to bring in legislation that sets out the rules for physician-assisted suicide. If Parliament misses the deadline, then the only guidance for doctors would be the limits set out by the court and by the colleges that regulate doctors.
As MPs in the House debated Trudeau's proposal, the organization representing Canada's doctors said it welcomes the debate in Parliament.
Doctors welcome debate
The head of the Canadian Medical Association said legislation is absolutely required.
"If there's no federal legislation forthcoming, the provinces then may intervene and have slightly different rules that would apply. And then what would happen is a patchwork quilt across the country," Dr. Chris Simpson said.
"We don't want a situation where somebody who lives in Manitoba doesn't qualify for medical aid in dying there, but maybe they do in B.C. This is something that is really in need of a national approach and it needs, frankly, some brave political leadership to do that."
Simpson said the CMA will work with legislators in drafting the new law.
The CMA earlier this year revised its guidelines on doctor-assisted dying to allow physicians to follow their consciences within legal limits.
Simpson, in a statement, also reiterated doctors' concerns about the need to improve palliative, or end-of-life, care in Canada.
"As important and historic as the Supreme Court ruling has been, good palliative care will always be the cornerstone of quality end-of-life care," Simpson said.