Early opposition amendments to assisted dying bill rejected by Liberals

Justin Trudeau says his government is open to improving its controversial bill on medically assisted dying but so far the Liberal-dominated committee examining the legislation is showing little appetite for amendments.

Committee will study up to 100 proposed amendments in coming days

The physician-assisted dying bill has been criticized for not meeting the standard of the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in the Carter case. (CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is open to improving its controversial bill on medically assisted dying but so far the Liberal-dominated committee examining the legislation is showing little appetite for amendments.

Liberal MPs used their majority on the Commons justice committee Monday to reject proposed amendments from the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green party that would have made the bill more permissive. They included proposals to eliminate the requirement that a person must be close to death and to expand the bill to allow people with competence-eroding conditions like dementia to make advance requests for an assisted death.

But Liberals also rejected multiple proposed amendments by Conservative MPs that would have made the bill more restrictive.

Among the Tory amendments shot down were proposals to require that every application for medical assistance in dying be approved by a judge, to require the minister of health to sign off on applications and to require psychological assessments of applicants. Others would have stipulated that only someone with a terminal disease would be eligible and only once they're deemed to have less than 30 days to live.

Earlier Monday, Trudeau, who has promised a free vote on the bill and has vowed to empower committees, told a news conference that his government is "always open to good ideas and to making improvements to bills." He said the government would review opposition proposals on the assisted dying bill and may consider some of them.

However, Liberals on the committee later concluded that only two of roughly three dozen proposed amendments — one from the Conservatives, one from the Liberals, both relatively minor — would improve a bill that they appear to have decided strikes the right balance.

'Please pass at least one'

Green party Leader Elizabeth May tried and failed to win support for several amendments aimed at removing restrictive conditions that the bill would impose on a person's eligibility for an assisted death — conditions that many legal experts have said fly in the face of the Supreme Court's ruling on the matter.

"Please pass at least one opposition amendment to C-14," she pleaded at one point. "I think it will improve our sense of a healthy democracy."

Her plea fell on deaf ears, prompting Bloc MP Luc Theriault to opine: "This is not how we build a consensus; there have been no amendments or hardly any or any substantive ones that have been agreed to ... I'm very hurt to see that this has happened this evening."

The committee will continue Tuesday making its way through some 100 proposed amendments.

The bill is the federal government's response to a Supreme Court ruling last year which struck down the ban on medical assistance in dying. The court gave the government until June 6 to draft a new law that recognizes the right to an assisted death for clearly consenting adults with "grievous and irremediable" medical conditions who are enduring physical or mental suffering that they find intolerable.

Restrictions didn't originate with SCC

The government has taken a considerably more restrictive approach than the top court. Its bill would allow medical assistance in dying only for consenting adults in "an advanced stage of irreversible decline" from a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability and for whom a natural death is "reasonably foreseeable."

NDP justice critic Murray Rankin argued that the government has added restrictions that were "nowhere to be found in the Supreme Court decision" and predicted the legislation will be found unconstitutional. He variously proposed replacing the bill's restrictions with the exact wording used by the Supreme Court, deleting the added restrictions altogether, or, at the very least, deleting the reference to reasonably foreseeable death.

But speaking on behalf of the government, Liberal MP Sean Casey, parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, said Rankin's proposals would leave undefined the term grievous and irremediable medical condition. He argued that the bill provides "the clarity that is needed to give confidence to medical professionals to undertake what is otherwise a criminal act" — a view Liberal members of the committee shared.

On the other side of the equation, Conservative MPs argued repeatedly for more restrictions on the right to an assisted death.

"This is a bill that gives physicians and it gives nurse practitioners the exceptionability to legally administer a lethal dose of a cocktail of medicine to kill somebody. It's nothing short of that," Conservative MP Ted Falk said.

And that requires a lot of seriousness and, I think, a lot of oversight."

Liberal MP Chris Bittle countered that the Tory amendments would create "layer after layer after layer" of barriers to medical assistance in dying.

Seeking to die early?

The only Liberal who seemed prepared to challenge the government line was Rob Oliphant, who co-chaired a joint parliamentary committee that recommended a much more permissive approach to assisted dying. He was allowed to speak briefly at Monday's committee meeting but could not vote on the proposed amendments as he is not a committee member.

Oliphant raised the case of a Manitoba woman in her fifties, suffering from amytrophic lateral sclerosis, who last week received judicial approval for a medically assisted death. The woman was expected to live three to five more years and thus would not have been close enough to death to qualify for an assisted death under the bill, he said.

"There are cases already in play that people may actually be seeking death now before this bill is passed because they fear they would be ineligible to receive the right granted under the Carter case (after the bill is passed)," Oliphant said. "That is a grave concern I have."

In January, the Supreme Court granted exemptions for judge-approved assisted deaths until such time as a new federal law is enacted.