Senate removes near-death requirement from assisted-dying bill

The Senate has delivered a setback to the Liberal government's assisted-dying bill by voting to amend a key part of the bill that defines who can obtain death with the help of a doctor.

Senator George Baker predicts there will be 'many, many' amendments proposed

Every senator will get a chance to propose amendments to the federal government's proposed new law on medically assisted dying. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Senate has delivered a setback to the Liberal government's assisted-dying bill by voting to amend a key part of the bill that defines who can obtain death with the help of a doctor. 

Liberal Senator Serge Joyal argued that the eligibility should be broadened so all Canadians with "a grievous and irremediable medical condition" causing "enduring suffering" can access an assisted death, not just those whose death is "reasonably foreseeable."

His motion would effectively replace the language of the bill with that of the Supreme Court decision 

The motion to remove the near-death criteria passed with a vote of 41-30 late Wednesday night.

"It is upon us to make sure this bill complies with the criteria of [the Carter decision]," Joyal said. "It is so clear."

Senator George Baker on C-14: 'this could go on for weeks or months'

6 years ago
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The independent Newfoundland & Labrador senator is sponsoring the government's Bill C-14 in the Senate.

The amendment was strongly supported by James Cowan, the Senate Liberal leader. 

"We can't exclude people tomorrow who were granted a right under Carter," he said. "We cannot restrict medical assistance in dying below the threshold of the Supreme Court of Canada."

A number of senators, including Conservative Linda Frum, spoke in favour. She described how hard it was to watch her mother, former CBC broadcaster Barbara Frum, die.

She told her colleagues you can have a love of life and still support someone else's access to physician-assisted death.

"I do believe there are fates worse than death," said Frum.

Health Minister Jane Philpott testifies about the federal government's controversial bill on assisted dying before the entire Senate on June 1. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Long debate

Senators debated the amendment's merits for close to six hours.

Independent Senator John Wallace said he's concerned about the "normalization of suicide." It was echoed by Liberal Terry Mercer, who pointed to areas like Attawapiskat and Woodstock, Ont., struck by a rash of youth suicides.

"Maybe we're counselling and abetting people to commit suicide and are in contravention of those laws?" he asked. "I think that caution needs to be used. I also wrestle with the fact that we can't put the toothpaste back in the tube here."

Independent Anne Cools came out against the amendment, saying it was too broad.

"This house is under no obligation to be obedient of Carter," she said. "We have to look at a broader and more expansive set of facts. This is an extremely weighty matter and it's creating a lot of fear in many of us. I know a lot of doctors who are apprehensive." 

Senator Peter Harder, the government representative in the Red Chamber, argued the bill is charter compliant and said the rewording "largely guts the bill."

Impasse in House of Commons?

The amended bill could face a standstill once it returns to the House of Commons.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said her government worked "incredibly hard" on Bill C-14 and has found a balance between personal autonomy and protecting the vulnerable.

"It's a first step. This is going to be a discussion that goes on for years to come, a necessary discussion, but the balance that we've fought for and sought so concertedly and comprehensively is reflected in Bill C-14," she said.

Wilson-Raybould said removing "reasonable foreseeability," would require the government to add more safeguards.

In anticipation, Conservative Senate leader Claude Carignan is set to introduce an amendment that would impose an additional safeguard, requiring a judge to sign off on an application for assisted dying by anyone who is not close to death.

It is to be debated and voted upon separately.

More amendments to consider

Joyal's amendment isn't the only change on the table.

Because of the emotional and divisive nature of Bill ​C-14, the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee decided to buck its usual procedure of recommending amendments to the Red Chamber.

Instead, all senators can propose amendments during debate on the third and final reading of the bill on Wednesday.

To help move the debate along, the amendments have been bulked into four categories: safeguards; advance directives; regulations; and eligibility.

Liberal Senator George Baker, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, predicts there will be "many, many" amendments proposed.

Bill C-14 passed in the House of Commons and was sent to the Senate on May 31, just days ahead of the Supreme Court's June 6 deadline for federal assisted dying legislation.

Follow the Senate amendments here.

With files from The Canadian Press