OTTAWA – The Trudeau administration has agreed with the Senate that Canadians who have only severe and incurable mental illnesses should be entitled to medical assistance in dying – but not for another two years.
The two-year interlude is six months longer than suggested by the senators.
This is one of several changes to Law C-7 proposed by the government in response to changes approved by the Senate last week.
The government has opposed another Senate amendment that would have allowed people fearful of dementia or other conditions that compromise competency to file pre-petitions for assisted death.
She also rejected another amendment and changed two more in a motion due to be debated in the House of Commons today.
If the Commons approves the government’s response, the bill will go back to the Senate, where the senators will have to decide whether to accept the elected chamber’s ruling or to be on their heels.
Bill C-7 would extend access to euthanasia to excruciatingly suffering people who are not near the natural end of their lives, aligning the law with a 2019 decision by the Quebec Supreme Court.
As originally drafted, the bill would have imposed a blanket ban on assisted death for people who suffer exclusively from mental illness.
A large majority of senators argued that the expulsion was unconstitutional and violated the right to equal treatment under the law, regardless of physical or mental disabilities, as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
They voted for an 18-month period to exclude mental illness, which the government now wants to extend to two years.
During this hiatus, the government is also suggesting that experts conduct an independent review of the problem and, within a year, recommend the “Protocols, Guidelines, and Safeguards” that should apply to euthanasia requests from people with mental illness.
In the meantime, the senators wanted to make it clear that the exclusion from mental illness does not apply to people with neurocognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. However, the government rejected this amendment.
In rejecting preliminary motions, the government motion argues that the Senate amendment on the matter “goes beyond the scope of the bill” and requires “extensive consultations and studies”, including a “careful review of safeguards.”
It is proposed that the issue be considered during the statutory five-year parliamentary review of the assisted death law, which should have started last June but has not yet occurred.
However, the government has approved a modified version of a Senate amendment to finalize this review within 30 days of receiving royal approval from Bill C-7.
The government is proposing the creation of a joint committee of the House of Commons and the Senate to review the assisted death regime, including issues related to mature minors, pre-petitions, mental illness, the state of palliative care in Canada, and protecting Canadians with Disabilities. The committee would have to report back within one year with any recommended changes.
The government has also approved a modified version of another Senate amendment to require the collection of racial data on who seeks and receives medical assistance when dying.
]It is suggested that this be expanded to include data on people with disabilities and that the information should be used to determine whether there are “inequalities – including systemic inequalities – or disadvantages based on race, indigenous identity, disability or other factors” characteristics. “
This is in response to fierce opposition from disability rights advocates against Bill C-7 who uphold the bill, and sends the message that living with a disability is a fate worse than death. They have also argued that black, racial and indigenous people with disabilities who are already marginalized and exposed to systemic discrimination in the health system could be induced to end their lives prematurely due to poverty and lack of support.
Some critics have also raised concerns about the unequal access to euthanasia of marginalized people, rural Canadians and Indigenous people in remote communities.
With the Liberals holding only a minority of seats in the House of Commons, the government will need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties to pass its response to the Senate changes.
The Conservatives, who were largely opposed to expanding access to euthanasia in the original bill, and the New Democrats, reluctant to accept changes proposed by unelected senators, have indicated that they are unlikely to support the motion .
This makes the Quebecois bloc the government’s most likely dance partner. Despite his own contempt for the Senate, which he considers illegitimate, Block Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said that the Senators’ amendments to C-7 are “not without interest and actually deserve scrutiny.”
The government hopes the law will be passed by both chambers of parliament by Friday to meet the three times extended judicial deadline for compliance with the 2019 law.
However, with the Conservatives signaling they could drag the debate out beyond the Senate’s changes, the government will ask the court on Thursday to give her another month – until March 26.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on February 23, 2021.
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