New assisted dying law unveiled today

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OTTAWA – More than a year after the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s ban on assisted suicide, the federal government will introduce today a new law spelling out the conditions in which seriously ill or dying Canadians may seek medical help to end their lives.

The proposed law will not be as permissive as recommended by a special joint parliamentary committee, which urged that few obstacles be put in front of Canadians who want a doctor’s help to end their suffering.

It is expected to say only competent adults should be eligible to receive medical aid in dying.

It will not allow people diagnosed with degenerative, competence-eroding conditions like dementia to make advance requests for medical help to die. Nor is it expected to extend the right to an assisted death to so-called mature minors under the age of 18.

It is also expected to tread warily around the right of people with mental illnesses to seek doctor-assisted death.

The government is likely to promise to consider those controversial issues in a review of the legislation in a few years.

The legislation is the long-awaited response to the Supreme Court’s ruling last year that the prohibition on doctor assisted suicide violates the right to life, liberty and security of the person.

The court gave the federal government until Feb. 6, 2016 — later extended to June 6 — to come up with a new law that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help to end their lives.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has said the new law will attempt to strike a balance between the autonomy of individuals and the need to protect vulnerable people.

But legal experts and others predict it will inevitably be challenged, both by those who feel the law doesn’t go far enough and those who feel it goes too far.

Consequently, some members of the special committee and some advocacy groups have called on the government to pre-emptively ask the Supreme Court whether the new law complies with the charter of rights — rather than forcing sick and dying individuals to launch their own court challenges.

After some initial confusion on the matter, the government confirmed late Wednesday that Liberal backbenchers will be free to vote according to their consciences on the bill. Other parties have said from the outset that they won’t whip their members but Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc initially said Liberals would be required to support the legislation.