Politics

Senate committee urges Liberals to approve advance requests for assisted death

Canada's Red Chamber has all but taken a red pen to the government's assisted dying bill, raising what it sees as "serious concerns" with the proposed legislation and suggesting major changes.

Liberals under tight deadline to pass legislation by June 6

The Senate committee report is intended to give the government a chance to weave their recommendations into the bill before it passes in the House of Commons. (Getty Images/Blend Images)

Canada's Red Chamber has all but taken a red pen to the government's assisted dying bill, raising what it sees as "serious concerns" with the proposed legislation and suggesting major changes.

On Tuesday, Conservative Senator Bob Runciman tabled a report from the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee, the end product of more than 20 hours of meetings and 66 witnesses.

Notably, Tuesday's report recommends the government allow advance requests for medical assistance in dying. Allowing for advanced request would open the door for people with early stage dementia and other cognitive impairments.

Members also want safeguards preventing anyone benefiting from a person's death should not have the ability to sign for the person requesting assistance in dying.

Runciman, chair of the committee, said many Senators are uneasy about the assisted dying bill in its current form. 

"The House of Commons would be wise to consider this before Bill C-14 is sent to the Senate. Many Senators feel very strongly about this issue, and I think that is reflected in the report," he said.

Terminal vs. 'grievous and irremediable' illnesses

Simultaneously, the majority of the committee also recommended that the eligibility for assisted dying only include those who have a terminal illness. It's a more limited view than the Supreme Court took when last year when it recognized 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.

The Senate's legal committee has signalled that the government should allow advance requests for medical assistance in dying if it wants its legislation to be approved by the upper chamber. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The Senate committee also flagged concerns that the bill in its current form would allow lethal drugs prescribed for a person granted an assisted death to be kept for months or years before being used.

"In these cases, there is no safeguard ensuring that the patient's express consent is given at that time," reads the report.

Other recommendations accepted unanimously or by a majority of committee members:

  • Remove any mention of the government's promise to consider or to launch independent reviews related to extending assisted dying to mature minors and those who are suffering solely from mental illness.
  • Maintain the requirement of a 15-day waiting period between the day a person requests an assisted death and the day it is provided and increase that waiting period to 90 days for those with a mental health condition.
  • Strengthen conscience rights, explicitly adding a provision that no health professional on health-care institution is compelled to provide assistance in dying.

The pre-study report process is intended to give the government a chance to weave the Senate's recommendations into Bill C-14 before it passes in the House of Commons. The point is to avoid a scenario where a bill passed in the House of Commons is then amended by the Senate, sent back to the Commons for approval and then carried back to the Upper Chamber for approval.

The government is under a tight deadline to make its legislation the law of the land by June 6 — the date the Supreme Court set after it struck down the existing ban on doctor-assisted death in the Carter decision.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould

6 years ago
Duration 2:49
The federal justice minister discusses the doctor assisted dying bill as the Liberal government seeks to pass bill C-14 before the Supreme Court of Canada's June 6 deadline.

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told CBC News Network's Power & Politics she applauds the leadership of the Senate reviewing the legislation, stressing there are real-world ramifications if her government misses the looming deadline.

"I would like to dispel those opinions that say that June 6 isn't an important deadline to meet. The Carter decision and the criteria laid out by the Supreme Court will apply ... there will be absolutely no safeguards in place. No defined eligibility criteria. Medical practitioners will be uncertain to say the least in terms of how somebody can access medical assistance in dying," she said.

The Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee is made of seven Conservative senators, four Liberals and one independent senator.

Senate Liberal Leader James Cowan issued a statement Wednesday saying he is not convinced the government's bill in its current form complies with both the Supreme Court decision and the Charter. He sat on both the special joint committee that studied the issue before C-14 was introduced and the Senate's legal affairs committee that just finished its study of the bill. 

He said he'll propose an amendment when the bill reaches the Senate to change the wording on eligibility to more closely mirror the court ruling, doing away with requirements that the disease or illness be "incurable" and that the person's natural death be "reasonably foreseeable."

He also applauded the committee's recommendation to amend the bill to allow for advance directives.

With files from the Canadian Press

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