Justice Minister David Lametti is seen during a news conference Monday October 5, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Assisted dying bill reintroduced in Ottawa as court deadline looms

The government has until Dec. 18 to amend the law to comply with a Quebec court ruling

The federal government reintroduced Monday legislation to amend Canada’s law on medical assistance in dying — just two months before a court-imposed deadline.

The government has until Dec. 18 to amend the law to comply with a Quebec court ruling last fall, which found it was unconstitutional to allow only those whose natural death is “reasonably foreseeable” to be able to get medical help to end their suffering.

Justice Minister David Lametti introduced a bill in response to that ruling last February but it didn’t get beyond the initial stage of the legislative process before the House of Commons adjourned in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That bill died when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament last month.

The government now has just two months to get the new bill, which is identical to the one introduced last winter, through both the Commons and the Senate.

Lametti expressed confidence that it can be done “expeditiously,” despite the fact that provisions in Bill C-7 have already proved controversial.

“This bill is the product very much of a consensus that Canadians are ready for and, therefore, that should be reflected across both sides of the aisle and in both houses (of Parliament),” he told a news conference.

“Canadians expect us to do this quickly. Canadians have spoken with respect to the measures that are contained in this bill and, therefore, it’s up to our parliamentary partners to work with us to get this passed by the 18th of December.”

The bill scraps reasonably foreseeable death as a requirement for an assisted death but retains the concept to set out easier eligibility rules for those who are near death and more stringent rules for those who aren’t.

For those deemed to be near death, the government is proposing to drop the requirement that a person must wait 10 days after being approved for an assisted death before receiving the procedure. It would also reduce the number of witnesses needed to one from two.

As well, it proposes to drop the requirement that a person must be able to give consent a second time immediately before receiving the procedure.

People not near death would face higher hurdles.

Such people would face a minimum 90-day period for assessments of their requests for an assisted death. One of the two medical practitioners who assesses a request would have to have expertise in the person’s particular medical condition. And the person would have to be able to give final consent immediately before the assisted death.

The bill would also explicitly prohibit assisted dying in cases where mental illness is the sole underlying medical condition.

Some legal experts and advocates for medically assisted dying feared the bill would actually make it harder than the existing law for some people to receive the procedure, or even take away their access to it entirely.

Since the Liberal government holds only a minority of seats in the House of Commons, it will need the support of at least one of the main opposition parties to pass the bill.

NDP justice critic Randall Garrison said his party agrees the bill should pass quickly because it will help Canadians who are “unnecessarily suffering.”

But he said he’s concerned that Lametti is loading up the legislative calendar with a host of justice bills “so that we always end up in a situation where everything has to be rushed.”

“Some of that is due to COVID, but not all of it,” he said in an interview.

Garrison pointed out that a mandatory five-year review of the assisted dying law — including issues of whether the procedure should be available through advance consent, or to mature minors or those suffering solely from mental illness — was supposed to start in June but nothing has been done so far.

Conservative justice critic Rob Moore said in a statement Monday that his party’s priority will be to ensure Bill C-7 “includes safeguards for the most vulnerable in our society, as well as for the conscience rights of physicians and health professionals.”

Newly minted Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole courted social conservatives during his party’s recent leadership contest by promising to protect “the conscience rights of all health-care professionals whose beliefs, religious or otherwise, prevent them from carrying out or referring patients for services that violate their conscience.”

That promise flies in the face of a unanimous Ontario Court of Appeal ruling in May 2019, which said doctors who have moral objections to providing health services like abortion or assisted death must provide patients with an “effective referral” to another doctor.

Moore said Conservatives believe the federal government should have appealed the Quebec court ruling that struck down the reasonably foreseeable death provision “so that we could get certainty on the framework within which Parliament can legislate.”

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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