National Column: Bill C-14 fails test of human compassion

by Chantal Hébert

A Conservative government could have written the Liberal assisted-dying legislation introduced this week in the House of Commons. It reads like a bill Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould found in the bottom drawer of her Tory predecessor’s desk.

The bill barely meets the threshold of the Supreme Court ruling that prompted its drafting. It falls far short of the recommendations of the majority of senators and MPs of all political stripes who studied the issue earlier this year.

If there is a template for Bill C-14 it is neither the court ruling that opened the door to medically assisted suicide on charter grounds more than a year ago nor the subsequent report of a parliamentary committee, but rather the law that came into force in Quebec at the end of last

But that provincial legislation was crafted at a time when the Criminal Code dispositions forbidding assisted suicide had yet to be struck down by the Supreme Court. In their efforts to tiptoe around a federal legal obstacle, its Quebec authors tried to err on the side of restrictive caution.

When the provincial law came into effect last year, Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette said it would likely have to be reviewed in light of a federal law that he expected would reflect the more permissive Supreme Court prescriptions. On Thursday the normally unflappable minister sounded more perplexed than pleased by the similarities between the federal bill and the provincial law he administers.

For those who drafted Bill C-14 on the instructions of Justin Trudeau’s government faced none of the restrictions of their Quebec counterparts. Their task was not to find a way around the criminal law but to replace it with a framework that respected the right of Canadians to turn to medically assisted suicide as an end-of-life option.

Under Bill C-14 that right is grudgingly offered to some and not at all to others. Mature minors would have to endure the years that separate them from their majority in excruciating pain by sheer virtue of their age. Anyone with a dementia diagnosis would be forbidden to make arrangements – while of sound mind and body – to be helped out of his or her misery at a time of his or her choosing.

A dying patient who happened to fit the criteria set in the law would still have to languish for 15 days between securing approval for a medically assisted suicide and the moment when that wish could be granted.

All of the above pave the way for more battles to earn the right to an assisted suicide based on more human considerations than those spelled out by federal bureaucrats. Those battles are more likely to be won in court than in Parliament.

Wilson-Raybould can always promise to look at liberalizing the law at some point down the road. But on this issue, the courts have had to drag parliamentarians every inch of the way. To this day, this file continues to elicit little political will on either side of the House of Commons.

Once adopted this law will not be easily revisited.

The Liberals needed a bill liable to pass – on a free vote – in both houses of Parliament in time for a court-imposed June 6 deadline. If the existing federal statute is not replaced by then, the provinces will have to each set their own criteria.

By aiming for the lowest constitutional common denominator in terms of access to assisted suicide, the government may to be able to fulfil the minimalist duty of avoiding a national legal void. But if this bill passes, that is about all the Liberals will be able to brag about.

Looking at Trudeau’s first charter-related piece of legislation, one would search in vain for the proactive rights bias that the prime minister so often boasts about as he wraps himself in his father’s constitutional legacy.

There are those who will point out that Bill C-14 that has the merit of being closely aligned with current public opinion. But if poll results were the acid test of rights legislation, the death penalty would have been maintained, and legal unions rather than equal marriage rights would have been granted to same-sex couples.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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