Liberal MP and doctor says he'll vote against assisted death bill

A Liberal MP and medical doctor says he will vote against the government’s contentious medical assistance in dying (MAID) bill, concerned that it could allow people in deep, but temporary, despair to end their life.

Marcus Powlowski warns the legislation could permit people with 'transient' despair to terminate their lives

Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski, who has worked for decades as a medical doctor and has law degrees, says he will vote against Bill C-7 unless there are changes to it. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

A Liberal MP and medical doctor says he will vote against his government's contentious medical assistance in dying (MAID) bill, warning that it could allow people suffering from deep but temporary despair to end their lives.

Marcus Powlowski, who represents the Ontario riding of Thunder Bay-Rainy River, already voted against Bill C-7 at the report stage in the legislative process — the only member of the government caucus to do so. He told CBC News he will "regrettably" do so again unless it's amended.

"I don't like voting against my party, but as someone with a medical background and somebody who has dealt with this issue over the years a lot, I think morally it's incumbent upon me to stand up when it comes to issues of health and life and death," he said.

Powlowski has practised medicine in Canada, Africa and the South Pacific. He has two law degrees and a master's degree in health policy and has helped develop health law and policy for the World Health Organization and several governments.

Powlowski — who insisted he is not opposed to MAID in principle — said a Quebec court ruling required the Liberal government to craft "very difficult legislation" to strike a balance between two starkly different views of MAID.

My biggest concern ... is that we don't end up using MAID for people who don't really want to die- Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski

He said he worries the resulting legislation may not address people who are "transient" in their wish to terminate their lives, such as someone who has a permanent disability or who now needs chronic care. Those feelings of anguish can fade over time as they adjust to a changed reality, he said.

"My biggest concern, as someone who has spent my whole life trying to avoid accidentally killing people, is that we don't end up using MAID for people who don't really want to die," he said.

"I think, with a bit of time, people may come around to the fact that there are reasons they want to live."

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.

Lametti urges swift passage of bill

Justice Minister David Lametti is urging MPs to pass the bill "expeditiously" in order to meet a court-imposed Dec. 18 deadline.

The government already has received two extensions on the 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 Conservative opposition and groups advocating on behalf of Canadians with disabilities say the bill removes safeguards, but Lametti has maintained the legislation strikes the right balance between protecting the vulnerable and giving Canadians the right to end needless suffering.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has said that, instead of giving people a "tool" for assisted death, the government should develop a stronger framework to help people live better lives with better supports, housing and care. He also has accused the government of trying to rush a fundamentally important bill after wasting time by proroguing Parliament.

At the report stage, 16 Conservative MPs voted in support of C-7, including Conservative House Leader Gerard Deltell.

The current law requires that a patient seeking assisted death wait 10 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.

Senate pre-studying C-7

Conservatives had 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.

The bill has been undergoing a pre-study in the Senate.

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters, vice-chair of the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee, said the committee heard from 81 witnesses and most did not support the Liberal government's approach.

She called C-7 "deeply flawed, poorly considered and likely unconstitutional."

Quebec Sen. Chantal Peticlerc will sponsor C-7 when it reaches the Red Chamber.

If the bill doesn't clear the Senate 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 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.

If the Senate decides to propose amendments, the bill would return to the House of Commons.

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

The NDP says it supports 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.

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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