The House of Commons passed C-14, the government’s “Act to amend the Criminal Code and to make related amendments to other Acts (medical assistance in dying),” on May 31, a day after defeating ten amendments limiting the scope of euthanasia and assisted-suicide, and a week before the Supreme Court’s deadline to pass a law, after which the practices would be permitted and regulations would be left to the provinces.
All but four Liberals voted for C-14, and three of them voted against the bill because it was not permissive enough in its euthanasia license. Twenty Conservatives joined the Liberals in supporting C-14, while the majority of the Tory caucus were joined by the Bloc Quebecois, NDP, and Green Party MPs in voting against.
The Senate, which began examining C-14 in committee before MPs had even voted on it, debated several amendments and pundits were worried no law would pass before the summer recess in late June. The chamber of second sober thought passed seven amendments — some restricting the scope of C-14, others expanding it — before sending it back to the House of Commons. One amendment required a palliative care consultation and another prohibited a person benefiting from the death of a patient from requesting or participating in an assisted suicide. Most controversially, a majority in the Senate wanted euthanasia and assisted-suicide expanded to include those who had “intolerable” suffering but were not facing imminent death.
On June 16, the House of Commons voted on the amended version of C-14, maintaining the palliative care consultation, allowing beneficiaries to participate in but not request an assisted-suicide, and scrapping the provision that permitted patients who were not terminally ill access to the life-ending procedure.
Independent Liberal Senator Serge Joyal insisted throughout the debates that the Supreme Court’s 2015 Carter decision did not limit assisted-suicide to the terminally ill and thus the government’s law was unconstitutional. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould authored a background paper for parliamentarians that argued, “the question is not whether the bill ‘complies with Carter’ but rather, whether it complies with the charter (of rights).” Joyal attempted to refer the question immediately to the Supreme Court, but the amendment was defeated. The final bill maintained that “natural death must be reasonably foreseeable.”
The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) called upon lawmakers to “limit medically assisted death to persons at the end of life, who are free from inducement and fully informed of all medical and social interventions that could ease their suffering.” On the day the House passed C-14 to return it to the Senate, the CCD held a Community Forum for Robust Safeguards in Bill C-14 in Ottawa.
On June 17, the Senate voted for C-14, 44-28, with pro-life and pro-euthanasia supporters both voting for and against the bill. Nearly one-sixth of the Senate — 14 of 86 senators — was absent for the vote. Several pro-life senators, such as Conservative Tobias C. Enverga Jr., said they opposed euthanasia but had to defer to the elected branch of Parliament. Some pro-euthanasia senators opposed the bill because it was not broad enough.
Senator Betty Unger (CPC, Alberta) said in a statement, “a fundamental tenant is, ‘Do not kill the innocent. Life is sacred.’ Yet in considering this legislation we have dismissed so many safeguards that the innocent are certain to be killed.” She also said, “I do not know which is more alarming: the fact that we are on the wrong road, or the fact that we do not recognize it and that so many are cheering.”
“Killing remains a grave evil, colleagues, even if it’s disguised as medical assistance in dying,” said Conservative Senator Norman Doyle (Newfoundland and Labrador).
But other pro-life senators, such as Don Plett (CPC, Manitoba), wondered whether having no law was worse than implementing C-14. Both Campaign Life Coalition and Euthanasia Prevention Coalition favoured invoking the notwithstanding clause to set aside the Carter decision for five years and barring that, defeating C-14 and seeing what regulations the provinces would come up with.
Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said in a statement, “Bill C-14 is the most wide-open bill in the world. It is even worse than the Belgian law.” Schadenberg also lamented that “no attempts were made to amend the most grievous parts of Bill C-14,” such provisions that “ensure that a medical or nurse practitioner will never be prosecuted for decisions or acts that contravene Bill C-14.” He said such immunity is unprecedented wherever assisted-suicide has been permitted.
Paul Saba, a family physician in Montreal, said in a statement: “Canada’s Parliament has chosen to focus on providing lethal injections rather than providing quality health care for its citizens.”
C-14 includes a mandatory review within two years to explore how the law is working and to possibly expand the list of euthanasia-eligible patients. Both Wilson-Raybould and Health Minister Jane Philpott repeatedly suggested during media interviews on C-14 that passing the law was the beginning of the process, not the end, and it was widely believed that the government intends to broaden the law within the next few years.
Euthanasia activists could not wait. On June 27, just 10 days after C-14 became law, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association launched a legal challenge, saying the law was not broad enough. The BCCLA launched the case to strike down as unconstitutional the provision that states a person’s “natural death must be reasonably foreseeable” to qualify for death by lethal injection. It is assisting Julia Lamb, a 25-year old woman from Chilliwack, B.C., who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. Lamb told a press conference she might not have the ability to obtain an assisted death if she has to wait until her condition worsens to the point of it being terminal and she worries about having to live through untreatable pain. The B.C. Supreme Court is expected to hear the case this year.
Schadenberg said it is the first of several cases as he predicts pro-euthanasia activists will use the courts to broaden the law, including allowing advance directives, permitting “mature minors” access to the procedure, and extending access to euthanasia to those with mental illness.
Also, the Coalition for HealthCare and Conscience is seeking a judicial review of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) policy requiring physicians who oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide to refer patients to a physician who will kill. Schadenberg points out that “jurisdiction that has legalized assisted suicide requires doctors to perform or refer for this procedure.” Larry Worthen, the executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, and one of the coalition group members stated:
“the current approach of the CPSO demands that doctors set aside their morals and go against their conscience to directly refer for assisted suicide,” because “in our view, effective referral and participating in assisted suicide are morally and ethically the same thing.”
The coalition seems to have public opinion on its side. A recent Nanos Research poll found that 75 per cent of Canadians agreed that doctors “should be able to opt out of offering assisted dying,” compared with 21 per cent who disagreed.
Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim that the fight against euthanasia is not over. “We have not stopped fighting abortion, we aren’t going to stop fighting against euthanasia.” Hughes said while the ultimate goal is to rescind the law, the immediate goal is to elect anti-euthanasia MPs and provincial representatives.