Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-14 regarding medical assistance in dying. This is not the first time I have had the honour to participate in the discussion of this matter as a member of Parliament. I also was a member of the Special Joint Committee on Physician Assisted Dying. As a member of that committee, I was able to hear the thoughts of many people, both in my riding of Toronto-Danforth and across the country, on this very important issue that affects us all, and that is our end-of-life care.
My preference would have been for a bill that would have allowed for a broader scope of application. However, I support this legislation because it is a first step in the right direction, and it was a commitment to study the important issues of age, mental health, and advance directives, as will become apparent as I speak further. We need to take this first step, because this file has been left to languish for too long. My step would have been a bit bigger, but I am ready to start here on this path of incremental change.
Mr. Speaker, I intend to share my time with the member for Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas.
To date, we have struggled with the question of whether to allow, or not, medical assistance in dying. However, now we are faced with a different question, specifically, how we are going to legislate that assistance. This is an important change for us to consider, because following the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Carter, medical assistance in dying will be legal as of June 6. This bill is important because it gives us the opportunity to create a federal framework to govern medical assistance in dying.
In 1983, the Law Reform Commission of Canada reported on “Euthanasia, Aiding Suicide and Cessation of Treatment”. It found three basic principles reflected in our law, and I find that these principles set a good basis for our debate. The first is that the protection of human life is a fundamental value. The second is that patients have the right to autonomy and self-determination in making decisions about their medical care. The third is that human life needs to be considered from a quantitative and qualitative perspective.
I find it particularly instructive that the second principle creates a basis for a patient-centred approach to medical assistance in dying. This was the approach adopted by the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying on which I served.
Looking at the history of this issue, I have traced a long path of private members' bills, Senate bills, and private motions in the House. The issue has been before us approximately 11 times since 1991. The list of past attempts on this issue is incredible and demonstrates that efforts that have been made to grapple, unsuccessfully, with this issue have continued for too long. It is why I find it so important for the House to cross over this impasse and to take the first step toward legislating a framework.
The issue has not only been before us here. The other place has also considered the matter in committees, subcommittees, and bills. Just over 20 years ago, the Special Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide released its report “Of Life and Death”.
The goal of that committee was to set the stage for the national debate that would take place in the years to come. The majority of senators on the committee were not ready to support medical assistance in dying. The minority on that committee made some recommendations to support medical assistance in dying for an individual who was competent and suffering from an irreversible illness that had reached an intolerable stage, as certified by medical practitioners.
Over the weekend, I finished reading the Hon. Steven Fletcher's book, Master of My Fate, which outlines his experience as a parliamentarian, generally, but focuses upon private members' bills that he brought on the issue of medical assistance in dying. The book brought special insight into his journey on this question. He shared his story of the massive accident that rendered him quadriplegic and his election to the House, including the time he served as a cabinet minister.
Our most recent initiative in the House on the issue of medical assistance in dying was two connected private members' bills put forth by the Hon. Mr. Fletcher. The first, Bill C-581, proposed to amend the Criminal Code to permit a doctor to assist a person in taking his or her own life. The eligibility criteria proposed in the bill would track the language in Carter very closely. I will read the most salient eligibility criterion for the sake of the House:
...a person must...have been diagnosed by a physician as having an illness, a disease or a disability (including disability arising from traumatic injury) that causes physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to that person and that cannot be alleviated by any medical treatment acceptable to that person, or the person must be in a state of weakening capacities with no chance of improvement...
His other initiative, Bill C-582, proposed to establish a Canadian commission on physician-assisted death, which would have collected data from physicians who performed physician-assisted death. It recognized the possibility for incremental steps.
The bills were read a first time and left to languish on the Order Paper. However, on December 2, 2014, similar legislation was introduced in the other place and was debated on seven occasions, as late as June 2, 2015.
As we all know, during that time frame of December 2, 2014, to June 2, 2015, the Carter decision was released.
It is also worth noting that there have been active discussions in our provinces and territories about a framework for medical assistance in dying. The most notable example is Quebec, which struck a committee in 2009 to develop legislation on medical assistance in dying. The legislation came into effect in December of 2015. Much has been said regarding that law, and I will not repeat it, but it is notable that they too have a terminality provision.
I found it interesting that in testimony before our committee, Jean-Pierre Ménard of the Barreau du Québec stated that he believed the terminality clause of the Quebec legislation would have to be removed in light of the Carter decision. It underscores the point that such legislation will develop through incremental changes.
Working on the joint committee was an amazing experience. It was the first special joint committee in 20 years, and I see a strong value to this form of collaboration on major issues. The witness testimony and the thoughtful written submissions gave us a strong base upon which to form our recommendations. I stand behind the recommendations that we made. We did not come to our decisions easily. We lost sleep, debated a lot, and worked together to formulate our recommendations.
How then does my background on this file inform my views of the legislation we are debating today. I would have preferred that it would be broader. Most of what I have heard from my own constituents favours a broader approach. However, the bill is the first step into a complicated matter.
We need to empower individuals to choose how to manage the end of their lives and give value to the law reform commission's idea of a patient centred approach. Also, we need to consider not only the quantity of life but the quality. We need to respect people's autonomy and their right to be free from suffering, without putting vulnerable Canadians at risk. Bill C-14 gets us much closer to that goal than we currently find ourselves.
I would have preferred that we remove the clause of a reasonable and natural death, which refers to the foreseeability of a natural death. It is a terminality clause of sorts. The clause is vague and could place an overly broad restriction on a sick person's right to be free from pain and suffering. The concern about this terminology is that it tends to devalue the lives of the oldest among us. They are the most likely to be given permission to seek medical assistance in death with the legislation.
The young and sick suffer as much as the elderly. To quote Steven Fletcher “If the person is a cognitive adult, why on earth would we impose our views on what their quality of life is on them?”
The lack of advanced directives in the legislation is also too restrictive. A fundamental point of the Carter decision was that the Supreme Court of Canada had found a violation of “Life, Liberty, and Security of the Person” if individuals would feel they would have to cut their lives short because they did not have an expectation that they could end it later when the time would come. It is a tricky issue, but I am happy to see a commitment to study the issue further.
In my opinion, the positives of the bill outnumber the negatives, so I will be supporting the bill. However, I do see it as a first step on the journey.