Sen. Chantal Petitclerc recounted her own experience with a disability as she sought Tuesday to counter criticism of a bill to expand access to medical assistance in dying.
Bill C-7 has been widely condemned by disability rights advocates who contend the legislation sends the message that life with a disability is a fate worse than death.
They also argue that persons with disabilities, particularly Black, Indigenous and racialized individuals, will be pressured, directly or indirectly, to end their lives prematurely due to societal attitudes, poverty and the lack of support services.
But Petitclerc, a former Paralympian who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, used her own experience to argue that the bill strikes a balance between protecting the vulnerable and respecting the autonomy of individuals to seek medical help to end intolerable suffering.
She lost the use of her legs at the age of 13 when a barn door fell on her. At the time, she said her mother was recently divorced, working a low-wage job and caring for three young children.
Her mother had to “carry me up and down to the second floor of our apartment building because we could not afford to move,” Petitclerc, a member of the Independent Senators Group, said as she kicked off final debate on the bill.
“So, I may be privileged to be here in the Senate of Canada but I never forget where I come from and I know exactly what it is to be in a situation of extreme vulnerability.”
At the same time, Petitclerc said the bill has evoked in her a strong memory of the excruciating pain she endured in the weeks following her accident as nurses regularly moved her from side to side in her hospital bed to prevent pressure sores.
If she was ever in a position where she was in “pain that unbearable but that would be irremediable, I too would fight for the right” to seek medical help to die, Petitclerc said.
Bill C-7 would expand access to assisted dying to intolerably suffering individuals who are not near the natural end of their lives, bringing the law into compliance with a 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling.
Petitclerc said critics have “implied that access would be easy or unmonitored” and sought to dispel that notion.
“That simply is not the case,” she said.
She pointed out that an individual must be a competent adult with a grievous and irremediable medical condition, in an advanced state of irreversible decline that causes intolerable, enduring suffering that can’t be relieved by treatment acceptable to the patient.
For people who are not approaching the natural end of their lives, Petitclerc said the bill would impose additional safeguards.
Two medical practitioners would have to agree that the person meets the criteria for an assisted death and had not been pressured in any way. The assessment period would have to last a minimum of 90 days, during which the patient would have to be informed of all alternative means of relieving their suffering, including counselling, community services and palliative care, and be offered consultations with professionals who provide those services.
“I believe it is important that we keep all of these steps in mind and that we acknowledge how thorough, strict and safe this process is,” Petitclerc said.
However, Sen. Kim Pate, another member of the Independent Senators Group, said she can’t ignore the reality of people who’ve experienced “ableist, racist, sexist” and other discriminatory treatment in the health care system or those who’ve been institutionalized and marginalized due to poverty and a lack of support services.
She suggested the bill respects the autonomy of “white, wealthy and nondisabled” people at the expense of the lives of more vulnerable people.
“Bill C-7 stands to expand rights for some at the expense of increasing inequality for others,” Pate said, urging senators to question their “own ableist fears and biases.”
Sen. Jim Munson, a member of the Progressive Senate Group, said he has spent his Senate career championing the rights of disabled Canadians. But while he agreed the government must do more to improve services for people with disabilities, Munson said he can’t ignore the rights of people like Nicole Gladu and Jean Truchon.
Gladu and Truchon, two Quebecers with disabilities, challenged the law’s prohibition on assisted dying for people who are not already approaching the natural end of life. Justice Christine Baudouin’s 2019 ruling that the restriction violated the pair’s constitutional rights was the trigger for Bill C-7.
Senators have already passed five amendments to the bill, two of which would expand access to assisted dying even more than the government proposed to do.
One amendment would impose an 18-month time limit on the legislation’s proposed blanket ban on assisted dying for people suffering solely from mental illnesses. Another would allow people who fear being diagnosed with dementia or other competence-eroding conditions, to make advance requests for assisted dying.
Conservative Sen. Denise Batters was opposed to the original bill but she said the Senate’s amendments “blow the bill wide open.”
“I’m afraid you’ve put in motion a runaway train and the consequences will be dire,” she said.
Batters predicted the bill will be struck down for violating the rights of people with disabilities, whom she said are “screaming to be heard that they don’t want this so-called benefit.”
“What they want from government is not fast-track to death but rather the necessary financial and other supports that give them the option to live a dignified life.”
By contrast, fellow Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan said the amendments are an improvement. But he still thinks the bill is unconstitutional since it sets up unequal access to assisted dying: a relaxed set of eligibility rules for people who are near death and a more stringent set of rules for those who are not.
One of the roles of the Senate is to ensure legislation is constitutional, Carignan argued, “so logically, if we are certain that a bill is unconstitutional we should either amend it or reject it. That is our duty.”
Several senators urged the government to accept the Senate’s amendments. They noted that the government did not listen to the upper house in 2016 when the Senate urged it to drop the eligibility requirement that a person’s natural death must be reasonably foreseeable – the provision that has since been struck down as unconstitutional.
Sen. Rosemary Moodie predicted that some of the Senate amendments are likely to be rejected by the government again this time. Senators will then have to decide, she noted, whether to defer to the will of the elected House of Commons or dig in their heels.
Senators will wrap up debate on the bill Wednesday before putting the amended version to a final vote later in the day.
The government wants the bill passed by Feb. 26 to meet a thrice-extended, court-imposed deadline.
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