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Politics Liberals to miss Supreme Court deadline on doctor-assisted dying law

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a statement before the start of a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 1, 2016.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The Liberal government's doctor-assisted dying bill will not make it into law before next Monday's Supreme Court of Canada deadline, with senators poised to propose a number of changes to the legislation next week.

After two days of emotional debate, the Senate on Friday passed Bill C-14 at second reading, which means it will make its way to a Senate committee for further study beginning on Monday. About 30 senators stood up to talk about the legislation, many of them sharing personal experiences and most signalling they would like the bill amended.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet had hoped the Red Chamber, which received the bill only last week, would swiftly pass the legislation before the court's deadline. But senators seemed dissatisfied from the start, with a vocal majority saying the bill is unconstitutional and discriminates against people who are suffering but not terminally ill, and others arguing it needs tougher safeguards and more protections for physicians.

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After the deadline passes, Canada will have no law governing doctor-assisted dying, although the Supreme Court's ruling that the procedure be available to consenting adults with a "grievous and irremediable" medical condition who are suffering intolerably, will stand. Provincial medical bodies have put in place their own guidelines, but the Canadian Medical Association says its doctors "remain extremely uncomfortable with the legal limbo."

Health Minister Jane Philpott, who appeared in the Senate this week with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, said the lack of legislation will lead to access issues for patients and a patchwork system across the country.

"We knew in recent days that there was a possibility that we were not going to meet the timeline," Ms. Philpott said in an interview. "It's understandable under the circumstances, but I certainly hope that the period of time that there is a legal void will be as short as possible."

Ms. Philpott said she would spend the her weekend calling senators to answer questions and provide clarity. "I don't want to unduly cause anxiety, but I simply hope that people will proceed with caution and I will feel much more confident when that federal legislation is in place."

But it is not entirely clear when – and if – the bill will pass in Parliament. It could theoretically pass in the Senate next week, but if amendments are made in the chamber, it must go back to the Commons for review.

Many senators believe the government went too far in its insistence that a patient's natural death be "reasonably foreseeable" to qualify for the procedure, arguing it goes against the Supreme Court's ruling. Others believe the bill should include advance requests for patients with mentally degenerative disorders such as dementia.

"The House of Commons, in this instance, has made a bit of a mistake. Not a total mistake. There are good things in this bill," Joan Fraser, deputy leader of the Senate Liberals, said. "There's also a considerable school of thought that says that it could be better."

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Newly appointed independent senator Chantal Petitclerc, a paraplegic wheelchair racer, was praised by her colleagues for opening up about being paralyzed at age 12 after a barn door fell on her.

"I know firsthand what unbearable pain is," she told the chamber. "The first 19 days were torture, nothing less."

Ms. Petitclerc told reporters she would support an amendment that broadens the bill beyond "reasonably foreseeable" death.

"This is something that really concerns me, because I believe everybody should have a right to make their own choice and decision," she said.

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