Bill C-14: Debate between Senate and House of Commons mirrors public opinion on assisted-dying

Bill C-14: Debate between Senate and House of Commons mirrors public opinion on assisted-dying

By Shachi Kurl and Dave Korzinski

June 13, 2016 – The legislative battle brewing in Ottawa over the Liberal government’s Bill C-14 regarding medical assistance in dying represents a true test for the relatively newly non-partisan Senate and a challenge the Prime Minister arguably created for himself by stripping party allegiance from the Red Chamber ranks.

Add in the palpable desire for relevance among Senators, marred by controversy for the better part of the last decade, and the trenches appear to be dug in just a little deeper. Proving their worth to Canadians will be no small undertaking. Just last month the Angus Reid Institute found two-thirds saying the Senate is “too damaged” to ever earn their goodwill after years of scandal.

The primary point of contention on C-14 has been the condition governing when a person can seek assistance. The submitted version of the bill after passing House of Commons readings has prescribed access to assisted dying services only for a person whose death is “reasonably foreseeable”. Many groups and individuals, including the family of right-to-die pioneer Kay Carter, constitutional expert Peter Hogg and Liberal Senators,  voiced concern that this categorization is too narrow.

After reviewing the bill Senators in turn have proposed amendments of their own, including a key alteration that would see assisted dying criteria opened up to those who have a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” causing “enduring suffering”. This classification would be more in line with what the Supreme Court has set out as necessary for such a law.

And while this amendment has been met with resistance by the government – Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould stated the government would need to increase safeguards if such a definition were to be adopted – the change may be palatable to Canadians.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould testifying before the Senate on June 1

In March, we at the Angus Reid Institute canvassed 1,517 Canadians on assisted dying and found most would be open to a more relaxed criterion for access. On the specific question of individuals who are in a great deal of pain but are not given a terminal diagnosis, where Kay Carter would have found herself, three-quarters (73%) of Canadians report that they would allow for the right-to-die in this circumstance. In fact, support for a person with a terminal diagnosis, more closely aligning with the current legislation, garners only slightly more support as shown in the graph below:

Angus Reid Institute

This is not to say that Canadians aren’t concerned about safeguards however. When asked about how regulation should be crafted, much of the population is divided over the best approach to take. Most Canadians are split evenly between strictly regulating as the government has done (40%) and creating limited regulations (39%). Herein lies the challenge for the government in striking the right balance.

Angus Reid Institute

To an extent then, the clash between the Senate and the government can be viewed as a reflection of the public opinion climate in this country; a nation cleaved between wanting to accept the wishes of individuals who wish to end their lives, while grappling with the ethical and moral quandaries these demands can generate.

Divergent opinions from Canadians

The Justice Minister and Prime Minister have stated that safeguards are important. But Canadians opinions on which of these are necessary continue very much depends on the assisted death scenario with which they are presented.

For example, minors would not be eligible to request assisted-dying under the first iteration of legislation. On this, Canadians tilt in one direction, but only so far. A slim majority – 58 per cent – say those under the age of 18 should be allowed to seek an assisted suicide if their condition is terminal. This leaves a significant segment opposed. They find consensus on one circumstance however, just one-in-ten overall are of the belief that a minor with “psychological” suffering should be granted the same right to end his or her life.

Angus Reid Insitute

Another amendment that was debated but ultimately voted against by the Senate, and one that the Liberal government has made it clear it does not support, centres on advanced requests.  As the legislation stands now someone incapacitated through dementia, Alzheimer’s or another debilitating condition, who had stated earlier in a living will that they would choose to die, would not be permitted to do so. However, two-thirds (66%) of Canadians support the right to die with advanced directives of this sort.

Notably, Bill C-14 doesn’t specifically deal with the issue of referral in cases where doctors choose on religious or moral grounds to not engage in this procedure. Instead, this issue has been left to the provinces, many of which have already mandated that information about access must be provided. Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia have chosen more suggestive than explicit language. On this question Canadians show strong support – nearly three-in-four (72%) say a referral should be required if a physician chooses not to provide the service. In cases where religious hospitals or nursing homes choose not to offer the procedure, three-quarters (74%) say they should not receive punishment for non-compliance.

Once the Senate has finished its review the bill will return to the House of Commons for another vote. Whether or not these amendments will be adopted remains to be seen. One thing we do know is that the debate in parliament is mirroring much of the trepidation and many of the conversations Canadians are having across this country.

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