Politics

Lametti urges MPs to pass assisted death bill as disability groups demand a halt

As disability advocates call on parliamentarians to take more time to consider the law's possible consequences, time is running out on the Trudeau government's push to pass a new law expanding access to medical assistance in dying (MAID) to meet a court-imposed Dec. 18 deadline.

With a court-imposed deadline of Dec. 18, time left to pass new legislation is running out

Justice Minister David Lametti is urging MPs to pass expanded medical assistance in dying (MAID) legislation as quickly as possible. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

As disability advocates call on parliamentarians to take more time to consider the law's possible consequences, time is running out on the Trudeau government's push to pass new legislation expanding access to medical assistance in dying (MAID) to meet a court-imposed Dec. 18 deadline.

Justice Minister David Lametti is calling on the Conservatives to stop filibustering the bill and is urging all MPs to pass it "as expeditiously as possible."

"We've built in protections for the vulnerable in order to balance the freedom to choose, the autonomy to choose, with protection," he told the House of Commons Monday.

The government introduced C-7 in February in response to a September 2019 Superior Court of Quebec ruling which found that the law's precondition for obtaining a physician-assisted death — that the individual seeking it must face a "reasonably foreseeable" natural death — was unconstitutional.

The bill proposes to remove that requirement. It also disqualifies those whose sole underlying condition is a mental illness from obtaining an assisted death.

The government already has received two extensions to enact new legislation due to disruptions caused by the global pandemic. While it could request a third extension, the government says its priority now is getting the legislation passed.

The Conservatives have been using parliamentary manoeuvres to stall the bill, arguing the government is trying to rush through legislation that fails to include safeguards to protect the vulnerable.

The government is under heavy pressure to meet the court's deadline. The House of Commons is scheduled to rise this week for the holiday break and the Senate is scheduled to adjourn next week.

O'Toole to address MAID bill today

Debate on the bill continues today. Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole led off in the House of Commons, accusing Lametti of being "out of touch" with case law on assisted death and saying it's "shameful" that the minister won't allow amendments he said would provide safeguards for the vulnerable.

Instead of giving vulnerable people — such as Indigenous people dealing with generational trauma, those with disabilities and isolated seniors living through the pandemic — a "tool" for assisted death, the government should be developing a framework to help with better supports, housing and care, O'Toole said.

"It is reckless public policy on the most important debate our Parliament will have. That's why I hope the government sees the light – a few reasonable amendments and I think a lot of Canadians will be protected," he said.

The current law requires that a patient seeking assisted death wait ten days before obtaining it in cases where the death is "reasonably forseeable." The proposed new legislation omits that waiting period, although it maintains a 90-day waiting period for patients whose deaths are not considered reasonably foreseeable.

Conservatives proposed amendments to keep the 10-day waiting period and to extend the 90-day period to 120 days. Both amendments were rejected in the House of Commons.

Krista Carr is executive vice-president of Inclusion Canada, an organization that works on behalf of Canadians with intellectual disabilities. She said advocacy groups are "appalled" that parliamentarians would pass the legislation as drafted at "lightning speed amid a global pandemic."

She said the bill would open the door to people with disabilities being "put to death" as a way to respond to their suffering. 

"The government is sending the message to all Canadians that having a disability is a fate worse than death. But most importantly, Canadians with a disability will die when what they really needed was assistance to decent lives,"  she said. "How can we possibly be okay with that?"

Carr implored senators to take the time to study the bill carefully.

Pre-study in the Senate

The bill has been undergoing a pre-study in the Senate. Quebec Sen. Chantal Peticlerc will sponsor C-7 when it reaches the Red Chamber.

 She was not available for an interview.

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters, vice-chair of the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee, called C-7 "deeply flawed, poorly considered, and likely unconstitutional."

She said the committee heard from 81 witnesses and most did not support the Liberal government's approach.

"Witnesses told us about their substantial, widespread concerns on all aspects of this matter – the likely unconstitutionality, the lack of consultation with the disability community and Indigenous voices, the proposed removal of safeguards, and the Trudeau government's rush to expand assisted death while there is no consensus in the scientific community about the irremediability and predictability of mental illness," she said.

"This is a matter of life and death, and as Senators, we have an obligation to get it right for Canadians. We will take the time necessary to do that."

If the bill doesn't pass by next Friday's deadline, and if the government does not seek (or is refused) another extension by the courts, that would leave a disconnect between the law in Quebec and elsewhere. People in Quebec would would have a legal right to assisted death without foreseeable death being a requirement, while the rest of Canadians would not have access to the broader eligibility.

NDP wants supports for Canadians with disabilities

While sharing concerns about the legislation's swift pace, the NDP and Bloc Quebecois are expected to support C-7.

NDP justice critic Randall Garrison said the New Democrats support the right of Canadians to obtain medically assisted death to avoid unnecessary suffering at the end of life. But the party is also calling on the government to introduce a new national income support program to address concerns raised by disability advocates.

"The government has a responsibility to ensure Canadians living with disabilities are lifted out of poverty with a meaningful benefit. Providing support to people living with disabilities ensures they never find themselves in the impossible position they rightly fear — having to choose either a life of poverty and suffering or a premature death," Garrison said.

Dying With Dignity Canada, a group that advocates for better end-of-life choice and care, urged parliamentarians to pass the bill before next week's deadline, saying the delays have forced people to suffer needlessly.

"Not only is access to medical assistance in dying a constitutional right, but as a compassionate society, alleviating suffering should be our first priority," said the group's CEO Helen Long.

A July report from Health Canada on medical assistance in dying in Canada showed that nearly 14,000 Canadians had received MAID since 2016. In 2019, MAID accounted for 2 per cent of deaths in Canada.

A planned parliamentary review of the regime was delayed due to COVID-19, but is expected to begin next year.

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