Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House today to address Bill C-7 and to speak to our proposed changes to Canada's medical assistance in dying legislation.
The proposed measures respond to the Superior Court of Quebec's Truchon decision, in which it ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny access to medical assistance in dying to individuals who meet all the other eligibility criteria but are not near the end of life.
In responding to this ruling, the Government of Canada has had the opportunity to consider some additional measures for which there is strong support. That is why we are proposing changes that will help clarify and add precision to Canada's medical assistance in dying legislation.
Over the past few months, I have had the honour of listening to many Canadians, and it was important for me as the Minister of Health to hear first-hand what they had to say. My colleagues and I hosted a series of round tables and heard from more than 125 experts, academics, ethicists, doctors, nurse practitioners, members of the disability community, indigenous groups and key stakeholders. I also engaged my provincial and territorial colleagues, and my officials worked closely with their counterparts across the country.
In January, I was in Calgary and spoke to Cynthia Clark, who saw her husband through the process of medically assisted death last summer. Her perspective, as well as those of so many others with first-hand experience were invaluable.
I also listened to practitioners who have been providing medical assistance in death in a very thoughtful, compassionate way over the last four years. They had a lot to say about what was working well but also about what was not working well.
We heard many personal stories like Cynthia's, and they helped shape the changes that we are proposing today. In addition, the feedback received from our online consultation was astounding. In two weeks we had more than 300,000 responses.
It is clear that certain aspects could be improved in order to facilitate access, protect the vulnerable and respect personal choice.
With this bill, I think we have achieved a balanced approach that reflects the best interests of all Canadians.
Protecting the safety of vulnerable people while respecting the autonomy of Canadians remains our central objective. That is why the bill proposes a two-track approach to safeguards, based on whether or not a person's death is reasonably foreseeable.
Reasonable foreseeability of natural death would no longer be a requirement for determining whether a person can access medical assistance in dying. It would, however, be used to guide practitioners in determining which safeguards to apply. This is consistent with what we heard at the round table meetings.
Providers involved in assessing the eligibility of applicants for a medically assisted death told us they have a good understanding of the concept and are comfortable applying it. Under the amended law, they would use reasonable foreseeability of natural death to determine not eligibility, but rather which safeguards would apply.
For those whose death is reasonably foreseeable, we would ease some of the pre-existing safeguards. Under the current system, there is a requirement for a 10-day reflection period. We are proposing to eliminate this reflection period. For those who are at the end of their life, the decision to request medical assistance in dying is well considered, and this additional period only serves to prolong suffering unnecessarily.
The current system also requires that two independent witnesses confirm that the person who has signed a request for medical assistance in dying is who they claim to be and that no fraud has occurred, such as the forging of someone's signature. During our consultations, we heard that this requirement was a significant barrier for many people at the end of their life.
We propose requiring only one witness and allowing this witness to be a paid personal or health care provider. These individuals naturally would be excluded from acting as a witness if they are a beneficiary of the person's will or if they would receive a financial or material benefit from the person's death. Anyone involved in assessing or providing medical assistance in dying would continue to be ineligible to serve as a witness.
For those whose death is not reasonably foreseeable, we would create a new, more robust set of safeguards. We think it is important, even while improving access, to ensure that people who are suffering but who are not dying are given full and careful consideration as they assess whether or not to pursue an assisted death.
Strengthened safeguards would also serve to protect vulnerable individuals. For example, the bill proposes a minimum period of 90 days for assessing a MAID request in the case of a non-imminent death. This period would allow for exploration, discussion and consideration of options to alleviate suffering by the person seeking medical assistance in dying and with the practitioner.
The bill would also require that the person requesting MAID be provided with information on available counselling, mental health supports, disability supports and palliative care as part of the informed consent process.
We know that the majority of practitioners are already ensuring that their patients are aware of all of the supports and options that are available to them. This provision underscores the importance of the doctor-patient relationship. It allows for a practitioner and a patient to decide whether medical assistance in dying is the right step and provides sufficient time for the patient to discuss and consider other treatment options, which is crucial for patients weighing this kind of decision. This provision supports fully informed decision-making and individual autonomy.
Under the current legislation, those who become incapacitated lose their eligibility for medical assistance in dying because the person must give their consent immediately before the procedure. This means that some individuals deemed eligible for medical assistance in dying have chosen to end their lives earlier than they wanted out of fear of losing the opportunity to receive this service.
That is why we are proposing to include a waiver of final consent for persons whose death is reasonably foreseeable and who have been assessed and approved to receive medical assistance in dying. Individuals at the end of their life who risk losing their decision-making capacity before their chosen date would have an avenue to receive MAID without worrying that loss of their decision-making capacity before their chosen date would disqualify them. Support for this amendment is strong among stakeholders, Canadians and health practitioners.
Canada has had four years to reflect on the current MAID legislation passed in June 2016, and there are many complex issues that require further study.
In December of 2016, the Government of Canada asked the Council of Canadian Academies to conduct independent reviews on three specific types of requests for medical assistance in dying that are currently outside of the scope of the law: requests by mature minors, advance requests and requests where a mental disorder is the sole underlying medical condition.
The Council of Canadian Academies convened a multidisciplinary panel of 43 experts to review an extensive body of evidence, including Canadian and international academic and policy research.
We tabled those reports in Parliament in December 2018. They provide us with a thorough, thoughtful examination of these very difficult subjects. I encourage all members to read those reports as we continue our deliberations on the proposed legislative amendments and the parliamentary review that will be conducted later this year.
There is agreement among experts that allowing advance requests for people with illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease well before they would otherwise be deemed eligible is very complex and will require careful consideration and consultation before it could be included in legislation.
During the round tables I heard directly from health care providers who expressed discomfort because they have seen patients who, as their position progressed, might not have the same desire for medical assistance in dying as when they were first diagnosed. The Council of Canadian Academies' expert panel report on advance requests came to the same conclusion.
At the same time, we know that many Canadians have expressed an interest in advance requests so that they could have the comfort of knowing that they could avoid extreme suffering at some future date.
For all these reasons, we believe this issue deserves deeper examination through parliamentary review. That will be our opportunity to tackle questions that are profound and difficult to answer, even for practitioners who have been providing this service over the past four years.
The proposed changes to the medical assistance in dying legislation would exclude persons if mental illness is the sole underlying medical condition.
This does not mean that people with mental illness are ineligible; it means that mental illness cannot be the sole underlying condition. This is another complex aspect that warrants a more thorough discussion.
Since the federal legislation came into force in 2016, Health Canada has released four federal interim reports that provide more information on how the legislation is being implemented across the country.
In November 2018, we implemented regulations that resulted in the creation of a permanent monitoring regime that sets out obligations for reporting on medical assistance in dying cases by doctors, nurse practitioners and pharmacists. The first monitoring report under these regulations is expected to be released in spring 2020 .
Since MAID legislation was enacted in 2016, more than 13,000 Canadians have chosen this option of a medically assisted death. This is not unexpected. We have seen a gradual increase in the numbers over the last three years. The number of MAID deaths in Canada, slightly under 2% of all deaths, is in line with international regimes. The increasing use of MAID is largely a result of enhanced awareness of it as a legal option and greater acceptance by Canadians.
The federal government recognizes that public reporting is critical to ensuring transparency and also to ensuring public trust in the legislation. That is why we are proposing changes to expand data collection to help provide a more complete picture of medical assistance in dying in Canada.
Under the current legislation, only practitioners who receive a written request for MAID and pharmacists who dispense a MAID substance are required to provide information, but it has become clear that capturing information based solely on written requests for MAID received by physicians and nurse practitioners has resulted in an incomplete picture on who is requesting MAID across the country, and why.
The amended legislation would authorize new regulations to be developed in partnership with provinces and territories to allow for the collection of data on all assessments for MAID, and this would include those undertaken by other health professionals on the care team. It also clearly aligns with the original intent of the legislation to collect information on all requests for, and cases of, MAID in Canada.
I think we can agree that Canadians with life-limiting illnesses deserve the best quality of life possible as they approach the end of their lives. Palliative care and end-of-life care provide patients with relief from the pain and distress associated with a life-threatening illness. Supporting home care and palliative care is a key priority in our ongoing efforts to improve our health care system.
Through budget 2017, we made historic new investments in health care to improve access to mental health and addiction services, as well as home and community care, including palliative care.
To further support access to palliative care across the country, the government worked closely with provinces, territories, and stakeholders to develop the framework on palliative care in Canada, which we tabled in Parliament in 2018. We have released an action plan to support each of the priority areas identified in the framework.
I want to assure the House that the proposed bill responds to concerns identified by practitioners and experts through the round table discussions.
I will continue to work closely with the provinces, territories and key partners to support the implementation of the proposed legislative amendments, if they pass in Parliament.
This includes working with provinces, territories, health system partners and regulatory bodies to support best practices and information sharing on clinical guidance and other aspects of implementation, which includes training and retrospective reviews.
I have a great deal of respect for the practitioners who have been providing this service over the last four years with immense diligence and a huge amount of compassion. Their experiences have helped us craft legislation that much better meets the needs of Canadians. This law is constructed in a way that supports autonomy, but it includes the flexibility to allow a practitioner and a patient to work more closely together.
Medical assistance in dying is a complex and deeply personal issue. In tabling these changes, our government has considered carefully the need for personal autonomy and the protection of vulnerable people.
There is strong public support for change, and I believe we have found an approach that reflects the best interests of all Canadians. I urge all members of the House to support the proposed changes.