National Column: A BIG FIRST STEP

Prime minister rejects critics who say assisted dying bill doesn’t go far enough, but suggests rules may

by Paul Wells

As the Supreme Court’s deadline for assisted-dying legislation passed with no new law in place, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rejected claims his proposed law doesn’t go nearly far enough.

“Around the cabinet table, some of the most compelling conversations we had were around the disability community and the concerns around protecting vulnerable Canadians,” Trudeau told the Star during a lengthy interview in his Centre Block office. “Because, yes, defending people’s choices and rights is part of being a Liberal – but protecting the vulnerable is, too.”

Last year the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Criminal Code provisions forbidding physician-assisted suicide and gave Parliament a year to rewrite the law. The government of former prime minister Stephen Harper did not draft a new law before its defeat in last October’s election. With the court’s original February deadline looming, Trudeau’s government asked for a six-month extension. The court consented to only four more months.

That deadline passed on Monday. Physician-assisted suicide can now be performed legally starting Tuesday, with no restrictions under the Criminal Code. The House of Commons passed the new Liberal law, C-14, last week. The Senate has only begun deliberating.

Bill C-14 permits physician-assisted suicide only in cases where the patient’s death is “reasonably foreseeable.” That’s different from the Court’s phrasing: it held unanimously that a patient suffering a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” could seek a physician’s help to end “suffering that is intolerable.”

The distance between the court’s language and the Liberals’ has led some critics to suggest C-14 is too timid to withstand legal challenge. Constitutional scholar Peter Hogg on Monday joined the ranks of those critics. He told a Senate committee examining C-14 that the new bill fails the test set by the top court.

Trudeau remains unconvinced. “This is a big step in Canadian society and Canadian justice,” he told the Star. “Getting that balance right means defending Canadians’ rights and freedoms and ability to make choices about themselves – but also protecting the most vulnerable.”

Bill C-14 “respects the challenge the Supreme Court asked us to respond to,” he said.

But he also seemed to argue the new law could evolve through real-world application and court rulings.

He called C-14 “a big first step that is going to be followed by a lot of discussions and evolution over the coming decade as we begin to develop practices and case law.”

Trudeau’s comments came during a wide-ranging interview on several topics. The Star will carry his remarks in separate stories over the next five days.

One of the leading organizations criticizing physician-assisted dying has been the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. The group has argued that severely disabled Canadians, especially those whose condition is new to them, could be so depressed they give up or could feel pressured by “social and economic circumstances.”

Does Trudeau share the fear that patients could be coerced into physician-assisted dying? “That’s been the slippery-slope argument that’s always brought up when medical assistance in dying is talked about from certain quarters,” he said. “But we’ve seen very clear studies from around the world, from jurisdictions that have that, that have said no, that simply isn’t something that ends up happening.

“But of course you need to make sure that it’s there in the framework,” he said. “Which is why we’re demanding (approval from) two physicians,” as well as a mandatory 15-day “reflection period” so patients have a chance to reconsider their choice.

Trudeau’s lead ministers on this file, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, urged legislators to move fast to pass C-14 before Monday’s deadline. But now that the legal vacuum they warned against is upon us, Trudeau downplayed its seriousness.

Will patients and doctors create facts on the ground by ending patients’ lives before the new law passes?

“I’m certainly hopeful that in the coming days, not too much is going to happen,” Trudeau said. “I don’t think Canada is well served by having a void on this issue. And I’m certainly encouraging the Senate to get this done responsibly.”

Earlier prime ministers could have called their government leader in the Senate and urged that senators on the government side of the upper chamber follow the government line. Trudeau gave away that power when, as leader of an opposition party, he kicked Liberal senators out of his party’s caucus. Does he regret that move?

“Oh, I knew that when I made this decision … there were going to be days that I grumbled at myself for having done this,” he said. “But I also deeply believe that Canadian politics – and, mostly, Canadians themselves – will be better served by having a thoughtful, serious group of people look in on what’s best for Canadians in the Senate and express that.”

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

Print Friendly, PDF & Email