Liberal MPs will be forced to vote the party line on a subject that is traditionally considered a conscience issue, as parliamentarians from all parties wrestle with how to design and implement a new assisted-dying law.
Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc confirmed to The Globe and Mail on Thursday that the government plans to whip the vote on the upcoming doctor-assisted dying law.
The party says it is a Charter of Rights issue, as set out in last year’s unanimous Supreme Court of Canada ruling that struck down the Criminal Code ban on assisted dying for grievously ill and suffering adults.
“At the end of the day, the Supreme Court has defined a right around the issue of assisted dying, and we will be always voting to uphold Charter rights,” Mr. LeBlanc said in an interview.
The Conservatives and NDP, however, view the issue as a personal one – and say they will allow MPs to vote according to their conscience.
The government’s decision to force its caucus to toe the party line is the same stand Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took in 2014, when he required all of his MPs to support a woman’s right to choose.
Liberal John McKay, an anti-abortion incumbent MP, said he is surprised to hear the government has decided to whip the vote before the law is even drafted.
“It’s not core to the government’s mandate; it’s a response to the Supreme Court,” he said. “I don’t see this as a Charter issue.”
Mr. McKay said he has particular concerns around the issue of medical consent – including whether doctors could face legal action if a patient’s family objects.
“It is inevitable, guaranteed, that there will be cases where … a doctor gets sued, because he whacked Aunt Minnie and nobody in the family wanted Aunt Minnie to be whacked.”
A special parliamentary committee, made up of 16 senators and MPs from the three major parties, is now drafting a report on policy recommendations for the government. It plans to make the report public in Parliament on Feb. 25.
“The bill … will reflect, I am confident, the extensive work done by the parliamentary committee,” Mr. LeBlanc said.
The Supreme Court recently gave the Liberals a four-month extension, until June, to come up with a new law after striking down the ban on assisted dying last February.
In its ruling, the court said the ban should no longer apply to competent adults with a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition that causes “endless suffering,” and who clearly consent to ending their lives.
Conservative MP Michael Cooper, co-vice chair of the committee, said he hopes the government sticks to the court’s ruling – and does not go beyond it by adding more specifics.
“We have to do our best to take the emotion out of the debate,” Mr. Cooper said.
If Liberal committee members make recommendations that significantly deviate from the court’s ruling, he said, “then it’s pretty clear to me that this whole exercise was really about optics and not substance, and that the government has its own agenda.”
The committee has met more than a dozen times since January, spending hours listening to the testimony of 62 witnesses, including health-care professionals, interest groups and government officials.
“It’s a remarkably short deadline. I feel the pressure,” said NDP MP Murray Rankin, also co-vice chair of the committee.
He said the group is considering such questions as how to prove competency, protecting the vulnerable and whether to extend the law to mature minors.
“It’s extremely complicated, how far we’re going to go.”
Liberal MP Robert Oliphant, who chairs the parliamentary committee, says the cabinet has not given members any directive on how to proceed.
“They have genuinely asked parliamentarians to wrestle with this, and give them the best advice we can give them,” Mr. Oliphant said. “I don’t think I’m naive. I think that the government still has a big challenge ahead to take our report and turn it into legislation.”
Two groups who testified at the committee hope their recommendations are taken into account.
Dying with Dignity Canada wants the government to consider advanced consent for patients with degenerative illnesses, such as dementia.
Advanced consent means patients could make a request for assisted death to be carried out when they are no longer competent. The organization released a joint Ipsos Reid poll Thursday showing eight in 10 Canadians agree.
“If we don’t have advanced consent for this group of people, they will be discriminated against and will not be able to express their choice,” incoming CEO Shanaaz Gokool said.
Rhonda Wiebe, of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said she hopes the government considers a “vulnerability assessment” to offset any coercion of marginalized people.
She also wants a consent capacity board to make decisions on who is eligible for assisted dying, not solely based on medical opinion.
“Before the Supreme Court decision, we were saying that there shouldn’t be assisted suicide in Canada,” she said. “Now we’re turning the page because the country has turned the page, and we’re looking for the best possible way of dealing with the new landscape.”
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