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Politics Grassroots Liberals seek emergency resolution on assisted dying bill

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Some grassroots Liberals are using the ruling party's first national convention since taking power last fall to challenge the Trudeau government's restrictive approach to medically assisted dying.

Wendy Robbins, the policy chair for the Liberals' national women's commission, is spearheading a push to get an emergency resolution added to the agenda of the convention, which begins today in Winnipeg and runs until Saturday.

The resolution calls on the government to amend its controversial proposed law on assisted death before putting it to a final vote, which the government is aiming to do on Monday.

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It urges the government to drop the bill's restrictive eligibility criteria and adopt instead the more permissive criteria set out by the Supreme Court when it struck down the ban on assisted dying last year.

And it urges the government to allow advance requests for medical assistance in dying.

Robbins is hoping to have the resolution adopted today by members of the women's commission, which was the prime mover behind a resolution to legalize medical assistance in dying that was approved at the last Liberal convention in 2014.

"Many of us are saying better no legislation than bad legislation," she said in an interview.

However, emergency resolutions must be accepted by the party's national policy committee to make it to the floor of the convention and there's no guarantee Robbins' resolution will get that far.

Indeed, Robbins said she's come under "a certain amount of pressure" from senior Liberals to withdraw the resolution in the interests of demonstrating a united front behind the fledgling government's first important piece of legislation.

"They really don't want grassroots Liberals to embarrass them," she said.

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But while party brass may be loathe to challenge the government, Robbins predicted the resolution would get plenty of support from convention delegates, if they're ever given the chance to vote on it.

"I think the grassroots don't feel that imperative to be pleasing."

From the government's perspective, a debate over the assisted dying bill would mar what was otherwise shaping up to be a celebratory post-election convention undisturbed by controversy.

The biggest item on the agenda involves not policy but the internal operations of the Liberal party: a proposal to overhaul its constitution to, among other things, do away with the concept of membership, giving anyone willing to register as a Liberal the opportunity to vote in leadership and nomination contests, attend conventions and take part in policy development.

Some rank and file Liberals have mounted a campaign to reject the proposed new constitution, which they fear would give too much discretion to party brass to run the party as they see fit.

Debate over legalization of assisted dying dominated the last Liberal convention. Since then, the Supreme Court has struck down the ban on assisted death and the government has been scrambling to enact a new law before June 6, when the top court's ruling goes into effect.

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It has introduced Bill C-14, which would make assisted death available only for clearly consenting adults "in an advanced stage of irreversible decline" from a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability and for whom natural death is "reasonably foreseeable."

That's considerably more restrictive than the criteria set out by the Supreme Court, which ruled that consenting adults with "grievous and irremediable" medical conditions who are enduring suffering that is intolerable to them have the right to seek medical help to end their lives.

When the government first introduced C-14, Robbins said she was "stunned."

"I just couldn't believe it wasn't more progressive."

Requiring a person to be close to death before they can get medical help to end their suffering is "absolutely appalling," she added.

Robbins' resolution calls on the government to immediately allow people to make advance requests for an assisted death once they're diagnosed with a grievous condition, like dementia, that will eventually render them incapable of giving informed consent.

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And it calls for an independent commission to explore the question of allowing advance directives even before a diagnosis is made.

Robbins said that would allow a people to make their wish for an assisted death known in the event that they suffer an unexpected, catastrophic event, like a massive stroke.

"As long as people are competent, they should be able to make end-of-life decisions," she said.

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