The federal Liberal government appears to be in no rush to complete a legally required parliamentary review of Canada’s medical assistance in dying law, which is already 18 months behind schedule.
The repeated delays have led some critics to conclude that the government would rather wait for court rulings to force its hand, than delve into the potentially politically explosive issues that the parliamentary review was meant to explore.
These issues include whether mature minors or Canadians with only mental illnesses should be eligible for medical assistance in dying and whether people with dementia and other competence-eroding conditions should be able to make advance requests for the procedure then that they still have the mental capacity to consent.
The review by a joint parliamentary committee of deputies and senators was due to begin in June 2020, but the committee was only formed last spring.
It held just three meetings – two of which were purely organizational – before Parliament recessed for the summer and the committee was then disbanded in August due to the federal election being called.
While all the other House of Commons committees were quickly reconstituted after the election and resumed their activities, the joint committee on assisted dying has still not been reinstated, even though it is theoretically supposed to return its report in May.
A spokesman for Government House Leader Mark Holland said the government looks forward to the committee “being reconstituted at the next session of the House” which resumes on January 31, “so that it can move quickly to do its job in the months to come”.
But even if the committee is struck immediately, Senator Pamela Wallin, who was to represent the Canadian Senators Group on the committee, predicts there’s no way it’ll get through its complex and charged job. emotion in just four months.
“You have to really want this to happen for it to happen,” she said in an interview, adding that she had no idea the government wanted to act quickly.
Wallin said the five senators named to the committee last May are all ready to start but have not received an explanation for the delay in appointing deputies. The 10 MPs who were appointed to the committee last spring were all re-elected on September 20 and could presumably be reappointed without difficulty.
“It’s just frustrating for all of us,” she said, attributing the delay to the government’s “general reluctance” to get ahead of the courts on the issue of access to physician-assisted dying.
“I think it will be long term, as it always has been on this issue: the courts will lead,” said Wallin, who has championed the issue of advance requests.
The government’s approach imposes a heavy financial and physical burden on already seriously ill people who are forced to engage in lengthy legal battles to access medical assistance in dying, she said. For people with dementia, who don’t have years to devote to legal challenges, “it robs them of this very, very fundamental choice” to die with dignity.
In addition to issues surrounding mature minors, mental illness and advance requests, the committee is also expected to study a host of related issues, such as the state of palliative care in Canada and the protection of Canadians with disabilities.
When assisted dying was legalized in Canada in 2016, the legislation included a commitment to a five-year parliamentary review of the new law, which limited the procedure to people whose natural death was “reasonably foreseeable”.
The Liberals were criticized last year for making changes to the law — in response to a Quebec court ruling that struck down the foreseeable death requirement — without even launching the promised review. But there are no apparent legal consequences to ignoring these statutory commitments or deadlines.
As part of Bill C-7 passed last March, the government promised to finally set up the parliamentary committee within 30 days (a deadline it missed by about a week) and to report to it within a year of its first meeting, which was held in May. He did not take into account a disruption of the work of the committee by an election.
Although the committee is supposed to study the question of expanding access to medical assistance in dying for people suffering only from mental illnesses, the government has already agreed in C-7 to lift the current ban on this. in 2023 and has set up a separate committee of experts to advise on the rules that should apply in these cases.
These experts have proceeded on schedule and are expected to publish their report by March 17, according to the office of Justice Minister David Lametti.
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