Canada could be without an assisted-dying law as of June 6, after the House of Commons delayed a crucial vote and instead debated an incident in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had physical contact with other MPs.
If no law is in place, doctor-assisted death will be in much the same situation as abortion – between patients and doctors, and subject to provincial regulation instead of the Criminal Code. (Quebec is an exception and has its own assisted-dying law.)
Whether that is a good or bad thing is a matter of perspective. An umbrella group for medical regulatory bodies across Canada urged the government on Thursday to take its time in getting the law right. The Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada said Ottawa's proposed law lacks clarity, especially in requiring that "natural death has become reasonably foreseeable."
But Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc is still holding out hope that Bill C-14, as the legislation is known, can take effect by the deadline. That would require a breakneck pace: The Commons will not vote on the proposed law until May 30 at the earliest. The Senate would then need to pass the bill, and may do so with amendments, in which case it would send the legislation back to the Commons for another debate and vote – all in the space of a week or less.
"Our objective has always been to bring this legislation forward in a way that would most likely respect the June 6 deadline," a spokesman for Mr. LeBlanc's office said. "We hope to get C-14 sent to the Senate as quickly as possible, and we are encouraged by the very positive contributions the Senate has made." The Senate participated in a prestudy of the bill while it was still before the Commons, to speed up the process.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in February, 2015, that the criminal prohibition of assisted death, which carries a 14-year maximum prison sentence, was unconstitutional. It said its decision would not take effect for a year, to give federal and provincial governments and medical regulatory bodies time to craft a framework for assisted death. It later added a four-month extension after the Liberal government asked for more time. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said Wednesday she doesn't think the court would grant another extension.
Much will depend on the Senate and the Liberals in the Senate, who are no longer subject to taking directives from the Liberal government after Mr. Trudeau gave them their independence while still in opposition. Senator James Cowan, leader of the Liberal caucus in the Senate, said in an interview that the Commons has been able to study the proposed bill since mid-April.
"I think it's unfair and unrealistic to say they would take six weeks with the bill and then say, 'You should pass it in three or four days.' It certainly won't be done by the sixth of June." He said he would not support a bill he believes is unconstitutional by denying people who are not terminally ill the right to a doctor's aid in dying. He said he expects it will take two weeks for the Senate to debate and approve the bill, with amendments.
Conservative Senator Claude Carignan, opposition leader in the Senate, said he, too, expects the bill to take two weeks in the Red Chamber. "We want to process the bill with intelligence. We will not make compromises on quality with our debate."
But Liberal Senator George Baker, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said it can become law by June 6. He expects the Senate will sit each night until midnight, if necessary, to pass the bill. "You assume that members will use their common sense and say, 'We must have guidelines.'" With no law, he said, there would be no safeguards for vulnerable people.
The Canadian Medical Association says doctors will not feel comfortable participating in the process in the absence of a law. "There's no clarity around the process to be followed, and protection for health-care providers. From our perspective, it would leave a tremendous legal void," said Jeff Blackmer, the CMA's vice-president of medical professionalism.
But Ellen Wiebe, a Vancouver doctor who performed the first court-authorized assisted death this winter, said she would continue in that work.
"I have a number of patients booked for their assisted deaths already, because we have completed the assessments, the documentation and the 14-day waiting period required under the guidelines of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. I also have colleagues ready to provide in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada."