Murray Rankin: Bill C-14 violates rights of many suffering patients

Bill C-14, which allows Canadians access to medical assistance in dying, just passed its final vote in the House of Commons. MPs from many parties — and even Liberals — voted against the flawed bill. A divided House sent the bill to the Senate, 186-137.

I had high hopes that Parliament could come together to pass a law guaranteeing that competent adults suffering intolerably from a grievous and irremediable medical condition would have the right to choose medical assistance to die on their own terms. Parliament had just received 21 recommendations from a special all-party House and Senate committee struck to advise on the government’s response to the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Carter vs. Canada.

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Our committee studied Quebec’s assisted-dying law and others around the world, reviewed the results of consultations with more than 13,000 Canadians and 100 organizations nationwide, and held 11 hearings in Parliament, calling 61 expert witnesses in medicine, law and other fields.

We knew that not every recommendation would be adopted, but we urged a respectful and thoughtful debate and laid the groundwork for a well-crafted law.

When the government’s bill, C-14, finally arrived in the House of Commons, many were shocked to find that it ignored or rejected most of those all-party recommendations. It did not even meet the minimum standard of the Supreme Court decision, choosing instead to limit access to terminal patients and exclude a whole group of competent adult patients from the rights they won in court.

This could easily have been avoided. During line-by-line review at the justice committee, more than 100 amendments were offered. Nearly all of them were rejected out of hand by the Liberal majority. I proposed setting aside the bill’s most controversial lines and using the exact words of the Supreme Court. This, too, was rejected by the government.

I also suggested that the attorney general put the question to the Supreme Court through a reference opinion on whether C-14 properly implements the Carter decision. Again, the answer was no. Reassured by the same legal team whose arguments were rejected by the court in Carter, the government claims to be so confident of the constitutionality of its bill that it has chosen to limit debate and reject amendments — and yet it won’t put that confidence to the test in the Supreme Court.

Just this past weekend, at the Liberal national convention, grassroots members put forward an emergency resolution to fix Bill C-14. With Liberal MPs telling delegates that the bill must be supported as is for the sake of unity, this, too, was rejected.

To others, the government has suggested that since it has run out the clock before the Supreme Court “deadline,” it must pass the current bill, flaws and all, to avoid a “legal vacuum” after June 6. This argument fails for a couple of reasons.

First, there’s no void. In fact, not only does the Carter ruling itself set clear and appropriate guidelines for access, there’s also a viable medical framework already in place. Thanks to the work of provincial medical regulatory bodies, such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C., rules are in place across Canada that physicians must follow. Indeed, these standards closely match the safeguards proposed in C-14: All of them require two doctors and extensive documentation, and all of them respect physicians who choose not to participate for conscience reasons.

But above all, the government’s justification for rushing through a flawed bill runs counter to a simple principle: Many parliamentarians of all stripes — me included — will not support a bill so widely regarded by legal experts as unconstitutional.

As I told my colleagues in my final speech in the House this week, enacting C-14 would revoke from an entire class of competent and suffering adult Canadians the rights they secured in the Supreme Court. It would revoke those rights in a manner that’s neither medically necessary nor legally justified.

I have sought to amend it and have seen those solutions rejected. I’ve requested independent constitutional analysis and found none. I’ve called on the government to refer it to the Supreme Court and they have not. So I could not, as a lawyer and a parliamentarian, support a bill that I believe would be unconstitutional from the outset. A vote for this flawed bill would have been a vote against the charter rights of so many suffering patients.

I know some of them by name. I could not do that.

Murray Rankin is the member of Parliament for Victoria and the NDP critic for justice and attorney general.

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