OTTAWA — On the federal government's assisted dying bill, the Senate has done precisely what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanted it to do: provide independent, non-partisan sober second thought.
But will senators stick to their guns if, as expected, the government rejects their most significant amendment, deleting the requirement that the end of a person's life must already be close in order to qualify for an assisted death?
"Frankly, it's unpredictable," Conservative Senate leader Claude Carignan said in an interview.
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Claude Carignan scrums with media in Ottawa on Thursday, June 9, 2016. (Photo: Matthew Usherwood/CP)
A number of different factions, which cross party lines, have developed during debate on Bill C-14, Carignan pointed out:
— Senators who believe the near-death proviso is unconstitutional and that the Senate has a duty to refuse to pass the bill unless and until that provision is removed.
— Senators who think the unelected upper chamber must eventually bow to the will of the elected House of Commons.
— Senators who are morally opposed to the very idea of medical assistance in dying and are likely to vote against the bill, no matter how it is, or is not, amended.
— Senators who believe C-14 is flawed but are likely to conclude that it's better than having no criminal law at all governing assisted dying.
It's possible, Carignan said, that senators with opposing viewpoints will come together for different reasons to defeat the bill — much as happened in 1989, when pro-life and pro-choice senators, for polar opposite reasons, voted against an abortion bill that had narrowly passed the Commons. Canada has been without an abortion law ever since.
"It could happen," he said.
Wait and see
How senators will respond depends to some extent on how the government "manages our amendments," Carignan added, noting that the government ignored the recommendations of the special joint parliamentary committee on assisted dying and the report of the Senate committee that conducted a pre-study of C-14.
"I don't know how many senators will just say, 'Look, that's enough.'"
However, even if the government cavalierly dismisses the Senate's amendments, independent Sen. Frances Lankin said that wouldn't be sufficient reason for senators to dig in their heels and "stray from a reasoned and thorough" response.
"Right now ... I'm leaning towards accepting what comes back from the duly elected Parliament," said Lankin, who voted in
favour of deleting the near-death proviso.
Constitutionality of C-14 in question
While she personally believes the bill is unconstitutional, Lankin said the government vehemently disagrees and legal experts are divided so, ultimately, that will have to be settled by the courts.
The Senate could, she added, urge the government to refer the bill, once passed, to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.
As far as Conservative Sen. David Wells is concerned, deleting the near-death requirement is "an important issue but it's not a critical issue." He said he won't insist on it should the government, as expected, reject the amendment.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
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.