Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould defended the Liberals' doctor-assisted dying legislation on Friday, reiterating the government's belief that it respects both the Supreme Court of Canada decision that called for a new law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould led the House of Commons debate on Bill C-14, a discussion she said will be an "incredibly difficult and complex" one for all parliamentarians. Since tabling the bill last week, the government has faced questions about whether the legislation respects the court's ruling and the Charter.
"It's never as simple as … cutting and pasting the words from a court judgment into new law. The bill before the House today respects Carter and complies with the Charter of Rights," Ms. Wilson-Raybould said, referring to one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case. She later tabled an explanatory paper supporting the government's stand that the bill is compliant with the Charter.
The minister acknowledged the "diversity of opinions" on doctor-assisted dying, and said she looks forward to hearing all perspectives as Parliament works to pass the legislation by the Supreme Court's deadline of June 6. Critics from both side of the debate – those who find it too limited and those calling for more safeguards – have expressed their concerns about the bill.
The most recent disapproval of the government's legislation came from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the family of Kay Carter, one of the women at the centre of the case in which the top court struck down the ban on doctor-assisted dying in February, 2015.
At a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday, they denounced the bill's requirement that doctor-assisted death only be allowed when "natural death has become reasonably foreseeable," a limitation that was not mentioned in the court's ruling. Under the proposed legislation, they say that Ms. Carter, who travelled to Switzerland in 2010 to end her life, would not have been able to access a doctor-assisted death because the condition she suffered from was not terminal.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould rejected that sentiment during Friday's debate, saying that Ms. Carter and Gloria Taylor, one of the other plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, would be able to have a doctor-assisted death.
"To be clear, the bill does not require that a person be dying from a fatal illness or disease, or be terminally ill," the minister said. "Gloria Taylor was dying from a terminal illness and would be eligible. So, too, would Kay Carter."
Conservative MP Scott Reid also expressed concern about the loose definition of a "reasonably foreseeable" death, asking the minister whether she would be open to an amendment that would better define the term so it is not applied with varying standards. Ms. Wilson-Raybould said the legislation's language was deliberately chosen so that physicians and nurse practitioners could use their judgment to apply the criteria when deciding whether to perform a medically assisted death.
Michael Cooper, a Tory MP who served as vice-chair of a joint parliamentary committee that made 21 recommendations to the government on doctor-assisted dying, said the bill has two major shortcomings.
First, he said, it does not protect patients with a physical illness who also suffer from an "underlying mental-health challenge"; he suggested a safeguard requiring patients with mental illness to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before accessing a doctor-assisted death to ensure there is clear consent.
Mr. Cooper also called for a specific measure to protect the conscience rights of health care professionals who do not feel comfortable performing the procedure. Health Minister Jane Philpott emphasized that Bill C-14 does not force anyone to provide medical assistance in dying.
NDP justice critic Murray Rankin asked Ms. Wilson-Raybould if she would refer the law to the Supreme Court for review, to which the minister said it is too early to consider doing so before the law is passed.