Politics

Parliament prepares to finally legislate doctor-assisted death

​Twenty-five years after the notion of "euthanasia" was first put before MPs for consideration — two bills on the topic were tabled by MPs in 1991 — the House of Commons will begin debate Friday on C-14, a government bill to allow for what is now referred to as "medical assistance in dying."

House of Commons takes up C-14 amid uncertainty about final vote

Health Minister Jane Philpott, right, speaks as Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould looks on at a news conference on doctor-assisted dying. The Liberals are moving forward with a bill on medically assisted death, despite opposition from some who feel it goes too far, and others who think the legislation is not broad enough. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

​Twenty-five years after the notion of "euthanasia" was first put before MPs for consideration — two bills on the topic were tabled by MPs in 1991, the first of more than a dozen initiatives — the House of Commons will begin debate Friday on C-14, a government bill to allow for what is now referred to as "medical assistance in dying." A new federal law could be less than two months away.

As Rob Oliphant — the Liberal MP who chaired a special committee of MPs and senators charged with studying the issue  — notes, the decision on whether to legalize assisted suicide has effectively already been made.

More than a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Carter vs. Canada that, "The prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice."

"Now," Oliphant said in an interview this week, "we're trying to put together a regime that will be good, will be just and will be fair."

If dealing with such questions were less fraught, it might have all been put together by now. As is, much remains to be sorted.

And Parliament faces a remarkable moment in trying to finally confront the profound.

'Not sure good enough is good enough'

The Liberal government's bill is, as Oliphant notes, "narrower" than what the parliamentary committee envisioned: the legislation in its current form sidesteps the question of advanced consent and excludes both the mentally ill and minors.

Speaking earlier this week, Oliphant said he had some concerns that the current legislation might not meet the threshold of the Carter decision. And, indeed, the family of Kay Carter, the plaintiff in the case that the Supreme Court ruled on last year, came forward Thursday to say Carter would not have been eligible under the Liberal bill.

Lee Carter, the daughter of Kay Carter, reacts to the proposed physician-assisted dying legislation which she says would exclude her mother despite the Supreme Court's ruling. 3:02

"I'm going to watch to see how the bill is amended. I'd like to see the bill be clearer on the issue of terminality and be clearer on the issue of suffering," Oliphant said.

"I want a bill that Canadians can be proud of and can say it's a great bill. Right now I guess it's a good enough bill. [But] I'm not sure good enough is good enough when you're talking about life and death."

Free vote for all but cabinet ministers

Parliament will be atypically free to consider those issues.

While the Liberal cabinet will vote together, all other Liberal MPs will be able to vote as they choose. Conservatives and New Democrats will also have a free vote (and Conservatives and New Democrats will also be contending with whatever additional pressures a leadership race can create).

The prime minister has also previously suggested that House committees should be freer to consider amending legislation. "I think the prime minister has been very clear that Parliament needs to really analyze bills and test them to see whether they match what Canadians really believe," said Oliphant, who is not a member of cabinet.

Robert Oliphant, Chair of a special committee of MPs and senators looking at doctor-assisted death, discusses their report which was tabled today in the House. 3:31

And the Senate, meanwhile, has just begun its own parliamentary experiment. In light of Justin Trudeau's reforms, there is no caucus of senators the government can count on to push the bill through, with the upper chamber now an unpredictable collection of Conservatives, unaligned Liberals and independents.

Among MPs there seems to be support, concern and indecision. Conservative MP Scott Reid, for instance, will be surveying his constituents via a mailout before deciding how to vote. 

Some number of votes might depend on how the bill changes. Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi has said her constituents would like to see changes to the bill. And, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Conservative MP Andrew Scheer said he would like to see the bill amended to protect the conscience rights of medical professionals who object to medically assisted dying.

A legal challenge to any bill that emerges from Parliament is also possible. Oliphant is recommending that the government refer the bill directly to the Supreme Court for review.

A personal debate

After Friday, C-14 will be debated for two days when Parliament reconvenes on May 2. It is possible that the normal hours of House business will be extended to allow for more MPs to speak to the bill at second reading.

"As I've talked to other MPs, there's a huge variety of opinion. Almost everyone I talk to, though, ends up telling me a story," Oliphant said. "They tell me the story of their mother or their grandmother, their sister, their spouse, someone who has died, someone who has been terminally ill, somebody who has needed palliative care, someone who has dementia.

"This becomes very personal. Not a single MP has told me that they simply have a theoretical approach to this. It affects them personally."

Oliphant, a United Church minister, says he has been at the bedside of the sick and talked about life and death. Other MPs, he says, are struggling to find the words and they are hearing from their constituents.

"I'm fascinated," he said, "to see how this will unfold."

The prime minister says he knows assisted dying is an issue Canadians are seized with and his government will deal with it seriously. 1:52

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.