Photo of the Parliament building in Ottawa, 2012. Opponents of Bill C-14 says the amendments made by the Senate to the euthanasia legislation made it worse. Photo/Courtesy of Hudation, Wikimedia Commons

Senate changes to C-14 ‘very bad news’, opponents charge

  • June 15, 2016

OTTAWA – The Senate has put itself on a collision course with the House of Commons after it voted to amend the government’s assisted-suicide bill to include people who may not be facing imminent death.

Senators approved an amendment to Bill C-14 on June 8 that removes the requirement that assisted suicide be limited to people whose death was “reasonably foreseeable.” Instead, the Senate amendment offers medically assisted death to people with “a grievous and irremediable medical condition” causing “enduring suffering,” language based on the Supreme Court’s Carter decision.

This change “basically blew the bill wide open,” said Senator Denise Batters, who voted against the amendment put forward by Senator Serge Joyal.  

The amendment would make assisted suicide available to people suffering from non-terminal debilitating diseases or mental illnesses that involve great suffering. 

Critics said widening the criteria to include the chronically ill, among others, puts the disabled at risk. They had hoped the Senate would go in the opposite direction and tighten safeguards and add conscience protection for doctors and institutions. Instead, they say, the Senate has made the bill worse.

“It no longer says the condition has to be serious,” said Batters.

A proposed amendment from Batters to protect those with underlying mental illness by extending the waiting period to 90 days and adding a psychiatric assessment was defeated. She was also defeated on an amendment to restrict eligibility to the terminally ill.

“(The Joyal amendment) is very bad news,” said Dr. Catherine Ferrier of the Physicians’ Alliance Against Euthanasia. She noted that Quebec euthanasia law requires a person be at the end of life. The Bill C-14 wording passed by the House was “already too elastic for our liking,” she said.

“My initial reaction was pure sadness,” said Campaign Life Coalition Ottawa lobbyist Johanne Brownrigg. 

She said most Canadians do not realize what is happening, but those who are informed and involved “see the handwriting on the wall, the extremism that has already come into play.”

Senators rejected an amendment by Conservative Senator Don Plett that would protect the conscience rights of individuals and institutions which do not wish to participate actively or by referral in assisted suicide and euthanasia. Plett said many provinces are “quite clear they are not going to provide conscientious protection when it comes to referrals.” He expressed concerns many doctors will retire or stop practising.

“This is something that needed to pass, and for them to just strike this down out of hand I find quite frustrating,” he said. 

The Plett amendment would have made compelling someone to participate in assisted suicide a criminal offence. “That would have been fantastic,” Ferrier said.

“The mood in the government right now is the ‘right to be killed’ is a fundamental right,” she said. “The whole thing of doctors’ freedom of conscience is not important to them.”

If Bill C-14 goes to the House of Commons amended, the House can choose to accept all of the amendments and pass the bill to the Governor General for royal assent, or accept some of the amendments and pass it back to the Senate. The government has indicated that it will not accept the Senate’s wish to loosen eligibility requirements for assisted suicide. 

“While there’s a possibility of a ping-pong game, I just don’t believe that will happen,” said constitutional lawyer Gerald Chipeur. “I don’t believe the Senate will do that.”

However, should the House and Senate fail to “see eye to eye, there is no doubt we do have a constitutional crisis,” he said.

If that happens, it’s possible a conference of the Houses of Commons and the Senate will be called, he said. The last time Parliament convened a conference was in 1947.

Many Senators said Bill C-14 was unconstitutional because it did not mirror the language in the Supreme Court decision in the Carter case. But Chipeur contends the bill is constitutional. Batters echoed that view but believes the bill needs more safeguards. 

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