OTTAWA — Every senator will get a chance to propose amendments to the federal government's proposed new law on medically assisted dying.
The Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee has decided to forgo the usual procedure of recommending amendments to the upper house.
Health Minister Jane Philpott to testifies about the federal government's controversial bill on assisted dyingl before the entire Senate in Ottawa, Wednesday, June 1, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
With so many senators keenly interested in Bill C-14, committee members have decided they'd be wasting time and effort to try to come up with amendments just among themselves.
Instead, all senators will be involved in proposing amendments during debate on third and final reading of the bill, which is expected to start Wednesday.
Given the disparate views of senators, with some thinking the bill goes too far and others feeling it doesn't go far enough, Sen. George Baker predicts there will be "many, many" amendments proposed.
Baker, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, says he's never seen a bill provoke so much interest.
"I have never seen in my history on the Hill of more than 40 years a situation where so many senators or members of Parliament wish to participate and a great many of them wish to put forward amendments."
"I say this is extraordinary because I have never seen in my history on the Hill of more than 40 years a situation where so many senators or members of Parliament wish to participate and a great many of them wish to put forward amendments," Baker told the committee Tuesday.
Sen. Andre Pratte warned it will be a "huge challenge" to keep the amendment process orderly and respectful.
In a bid to prevent lengthy debate on each and every amendment, Sen. James Cowan, leader of the independent Liberals, is urging senators to circulate their proposed amendments among themselves and agree to group them together for debate by subject matter: eligibility criteria, safeguards, regulations and so on.
Feds miss top court's deadline
While senators continue to deliberate the bill, the country is now without a criminal law governing medical assistance in dying. In the absence of a law, the procedure will be governed by the eligibility criteria spelled out by the Supreme Court in its landmark Carter decision last year and by guidelines issued by medical regulators in each province.
When the top court struck down the ban on assisted dying, it gave Parliament a year, later extended by four months, to craft a new law. That deadline passed on Monday.
In its ruling, the court said assisted dying should be available to consenting adults with grievous and irremediable medical conditions causing enduring suffering that is intolerable to them.
The government has taken a more restrictive approach in Bill C-14, which would make assisted dying available only to those in an advanced stage of irreversible decline and for whom a natural death is "reasonably foreseeable."
Some senators believe the bill is unconstitutional because it does not comply with the Carter decision or the charter of rights. Others maintain it doesn't impose enough safeguards to protect the vulnerable or to protect the conscience rights of health-care providers who refuse to provide assistance in dying.'
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A look at some jurisdictions where right-to-die laws are in place. (Information courtesy of The Canadian Press)
A right-to-die bill was adopted last year, the first legislation of its kind in Canada. The law, scheduled to go into effect in December, stipulates that patients would have to repeatedly ask a doctor to end their lives on the basis of unbearable physical or psychological suffering. They would have to be deemed mentally sound at the time of the requests. The law, however, is being challenged in court by two Quebec-based groups on the grounds that it undercuts sections of the Criminal Code that outlaw assisted suicide and euthanasia. The federal government has expressed its opposition to the legislation but is named as a defendant in the court challenge because it is responsible for the Criminal Code.
The results of a referendum made Oregon the first U.S. state to make it legal for a doctor to prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient of sound mind who makes the request. However, doctors cannot administer the life-ending drugs and the patient must swallow them without help. Patients must state three times -- once in writing -- that they wish to die, and those statements must be made at least 15 days apart. They must also obtain a concurring opinion from a second doctor that they have less than six months to live and are of sound mind. The law took effect in late 1997, and through June, 2014, just over 800 people had used the law.
The state became the first in the U.S. to allow a person's right to die through legislation rather than through a court decision or a referendum result. Vermont's law, which took effect in May 2013, is closely modelled on the system in Oregon and uses the same safeguards. Patients must state three times, including once in writing -- that they wish to die. They must also obtain a concurring opinion from a second doctor that they have less than six months to live and are of sound mind.
In January 2014, a judge ruled that competent, terminally ill patients have the right to seek their doctors' help in getting prescription medication if they want to end their lives on their own terms. The state's attorney general is appealing the ruling, and a decision on whether it will be upheld is expected later this year.
A referendum saw the state enact right to die legislation in 2008. As in Oregon, patients with less than six months to live must administer the doctor-prescribed lethal medication on their own. According to a government report, 549 people applied for the right to die between 2009 and 2013. Of those, 525 actually took their own lives.
In 2009, the state's Supreme Court ruled that Montana's public policy supports mentally competent, terminally ill patients being able to choose aid in dying. Physicians are allowed to prescribe medication that patients must administer themselves. More detailed legislative bills have been introduced in the state but have not passed. The court ruling still stands today, but data about its usage is not available.
A law passed in 1942 forbade anyone from helping someone kill themselves for selfish reasons. As a result, people arguing that they are assisting with a suicide for unselfish motives are not considered to be committing a crime. Suicides can be assisted by people other than doctors and no medical condition needs to be established. Switzerland is the only country that allows foreigners to travel there for the purpose of ending their own lives.
In the Netherlands, euthanasia is legal under specific circumstances and for children over the age of 12 with parental consent. In Europe, patients don't have to prove that they have a terminal illness -- establishing unbearable suffering is usually sufficient. Dutch doctors are allowed to perform euthanasia if a patient whose unbearable suffering has no hope of improvement asks to die with a full understanding of the situation. A second doctor must agree with the decision to help the patient die.