The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canadians not near death gain access to assisted dying as Senate passes Bill C-7

The bill expands access to medical assistance in dying to include people suffering solely from mental illness

The Senate has passed a bill to expand access to medical assistance in dying, including eventually to people suffering solely from mental illnesses.

By a vote of 60-25, with five abstentions, senators accepted Wednesday a revised version of Bill C-7, even though the government rejected or modified amendments made by the Senate.

It was expected to receive royal assent later Wednesday night — just over a week ahead of a court-ordered deadline.

The government had sought and received four extensions to the deadline. The latest — and very likely the last extension, the court warned — was to expire March 26.

Once royal assent is given, intolerably suffering Canadians who are not near the natural end of their lives will immediately gain the right to seek medical assistance in dying — in compliance with a 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling.

People suffering solely from grievous and irremediable mental illnesses will have to wait two years to gain the same right.

The government had originally intended to impose a blanket ban on assisted dying for people suffering solely from mental illnesses. But, under pressure from senators who believed that exclusion was unconstitutional, it subsequently put a two-year time limit on it.

In the meantime, the government committed to setting up an expert panel to advise on the safeguards and protocols that should apply to people with mental illnesses.

The government rejected a Senate amendment to allow people who fear losing mental competence to make advance requests for an assisted death.

But it committed to launching within 30 days a joint parliamentary committee to review that issue and other unresolved matters, including whether mature minors should have access to the procedure.

The bill was triggered by two Quebecers with severe disabilities who went to court to successfully fight for their right to choose an assisted death even though their natural deaths were not “reasonably foreseeable.”

But disability rights groups have strenuously opposed the bill, arguing it devalues the lives of people with disabilities who they fear will be pressured — either directly or indirectly through societal attitudes and lack of support services — to end their lives prematurely.

Many mental health advocates have also weighed in against the eventual inclusion of people suffering solely from mental illnesses.

For people who are near the natural end of life, the bill relaxes some of the rules for getting an assisted death.

It drops the requirement that a person must be able to give final consent immediately before the procedure is performed. That’s intended to ensure that someone who has been approved for the procedure won’t be denied if they lose mental capacity before it can be carried out.

It also drops the requirement that a person must wait 10 days after being approved for an assisted death before receiving the procedure. And it reduces the number of witnesses required to one from two.

People not near death will face higher hurdles.

Among other things, they’ll face a minimum 90-day period for assessments of their requests for an assisted death. They’ll have to be made aware of all alternatives, including counselling, and they’ll have to be able to give final consent immediately before receiving the procedure.