Non-partisan review of assisted dying bill shows 'Senate at its finest,' senators say

Three senators opposed to the federal government's assisted dying bill in its current form say the Senate isn't purposefully stalling the bill. They say the work has been non-partisan and is "an example of the Senate at its finest."

Amendments expected when C-14 begins third reading in Senate Wednesday

From left, Senators Frances Lankin, Kelvin Ogilvie and James Cowan say they're all opposed to the federal government's proposed assisted dying legislation in its current form. (CBC)

As the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee wraps up its review of the federal government's assisted dying bill today, three senators opposed to the bill in its current form say the Senate isn't purposefully stalling the bill, and that its work on the issue has been non-partisan and "an example of the Senate at its finest."

The committee's clause-by-clause review wrapped up in less than half an hour Tuesday morning.

No amendments were made. Instead, senators agreed to consider proposed amendments when the bill begins third reading in the Senate on Wednesday.

The bill passed in the House of Commons and was sent to the Senate on May 31, just days ahead of the Supreme Court of Canada's June 6 deadline for federal assisted dying legislation.

James Cowan, the leader of the Liberals in the Senate, calls the bill unconstitutional and says the Senate's job is to get a better bill on the table, not a speedier bill.

"I don't know of a single senator who is trying to delay consideration of this. We are taking our job very seriously and there's no partisanship in the Senate on this issue," Cowan said in an interview on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Tuesday.

"Everybody is seriously doing their job and we're anxious to move and I think we would all agree that getting a law in place at the federal level is a good thing, but getting the right bill ... is the overarching objective."

Listen to the entire debate here.

Age discrimination

One of the main concerns about the proposed legislation is its potential to discriminate on the basis of age, says newly appointed independent Senator Frances Lankin.

An 89- or 90-year-old who met all the conditions would be able to access medically-assisted death because they're closer to their "natural end," she said.

"But if you are 62 and you're in exactly the same situation, you would not. And there's a whole range of Canadians, therefore, who would not have access to the bill, and I think that that is, under the Carter decision ... discriminatory," Lankin said.

"Carter was about striking down an outright ban or prohibition on access to this; this bill does the same for a whole group of people."

Kelvin Ogilvie, a Conservative senator who co-chaired the special joint House and Senate committee on physician-assisted dying, agrees, calling the limitation on the Supreme Court's Carter decision "a cruel modification" that will lead to unnecessary suffering.

Canadians by and large are urging the Senate to do what the House failed to do: tie the legislation more closely to that decision, Ogilvie said.

'I do understand the sense of betrayal'

Asked whether he understood why Kay Carter's family felt betrayed by Bill C-14, Cowan said he did.

"I do understand the sense of betrayal. I think that the Supreme Court of Canada has very clearly laid out the eligibility criteria ... and it was that if you were an adult person and met certain other criteria, then you were entitled to access this service," he said.

"I think the bill does a pretty good job, in terms of the protection side of it. ... But the difficulty is to make sure that what somebody might think is a safeguard doesn't become a roadblock. If we put too many roadblocks in the way ... either by way of time constraints or costs, then I have concerns about that."

Lankin says she sympathizes with the desire to protect vulnerable persons who may feel compelled to seek assisted death because they don't have the resources and supports they need, but that the bill can be modified to better protect them.

"I think that that's a real issue, and I think we can put safeguards in the bill to protect against that issue," she said.

"I think the way senators — without reference to partisan interests — are dealing with this bill in the interests of all Canadians, is an example of the Senate at its finest, and it's important work."

Cowan said later that considering amendments during the third reading debate allows all senators to propose changes, not just those on the committee.

"There will be many, many amendments presented at third reading in the Senate," Senator George Baker said. "That's where the substance of the amendments will be voted on."

with files from The Canadian Press and Susan Lunn