Madam Speaker, medical assistance in dying is a sensitive issue that needs to be discussed calmly. It is a difficult subject, let's face it. It is especially difficult because, like all matters dealing with human dignity, any answers we might offer are a reflection of our own values, our beliefs, our way of defining what we see as right and wrong.
That is precisely where the potential pitfalls lie for us parliamentarians as we grapple with moral issues like medical assistance in dying, abortion and same-sex marriage. Relying solely on our own values in the legislative process is tantamount to subjecting the freedom of others to the dictates of our individual consciences. In this case, medical assistance in dying raises the kind of impossible questions that political thought has been considering since the dawn of the modern era. This issue compels us to seek a delicate balance between power, knowledge and freedom.
Everyone knows that, as parliamentarians, we have been given a certain power by our constituents. This legislative power means we have the ability to restrict the rights of our peers through legal prohibitions, directly affecting their freedom. However, it does not necessarily follow that we have all the knowledge to apply that power in a fair manner. To avoid any abuse, we must be humble enough to acknowledge that we are not experts in everything, even though we have to speak to everything.
Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, may provide valuable support to the legislator who is concerned about using their power properly. In his essay “Politics as a Vocation”, Weber says this about the career of politics:
Well, first of all the career of politics grants a feeling of power. The knowledge of influencing men, of participating in power over them, and above all, the feeling of holding in one's hands a nerve fiber of historically important events....
Weber then asks a very perceptive question that applies remarkably well to the debate on medical assistance in dying. He says, “What kind of man must one be if he is to be allowed to put his hand on the wheel of history?” Putting one's hand on the wheel of history evokes the idea that a legislator can change the course of society, as happened with same-sex marriage and abortion.
How does one go about changing the course of society? Weber says that, first, we must determine what qualities a legislator must have to enable them to do justice to the power they exercise and to the responsibility that power imposes upon them. Weber states that there are two pre-eminent qualities for a politician: passion and a feeling of responsibility.
He means passion in the sense of matter-of-factness, of passionate devotion to a cause. For me and my political party, that cause is Quebec's independence. For the Conservatives, who knows. Perhaps it is balancing the budget or some form of social conservativism. For the Liberals, it is multiculturalism and conflicts of interest. Just kidding.
Weber cautions us. “[M]ere passion, however genuinely felt, is not enough...passion as devotion to a 'cause' also makes responsibility to this cause the guiding star of action.” This passion must to some extent be controlled by a form of responsibility.
Weber warns us because he believes that the legislator must be a man of reason. According to Weber, the lack of distance from our passion is one of the deadly sins of legislators. In the context of the bill on medical assistance in dying, this distance means that we cannot let certain interest groups or certain religious groups guide our discussions because we feel that they may withdraw their support for us. In short, Weber tells us that political favouritism disregards distance and this leads us to political incapacity.
Therefore, on the issue of medical assistance in dying, we must adopt this attitude of “distance” in the strongest sense of the word. This distance implies that, on a matter of human dignity, partisan and ideological considerations must take a back seat.
The topic of medical assistance in dying forces us to deal with the complex relationship between ethics and politics. According to Weber, ethics must not be used as justification. He believes that contorting ethics in an attempt to justify one's behaviour is wrong, which brings us to the struggle between two well-known positions: the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of conviction.
The ethics of conviction often manifests in religious beliefs, in being dogmatic about ideologies. This type of ethics is meant to establish a definitive truth that must be protected at all costs in order to achieve one's objective.
Weber said, “If the consequences of an action that flow from pure conviction are evil, then for him the responsibility lies not with the actor but with the world, the stupidity of other people, or the will of God”. He continues, “He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics”, which seeks to solve quite different tasks.
The ethics of responsibility has us look at the potential consequences of our actions. It forces us to use our legislative power responsibly and to look beyond our allegiances and personal beliefs. We are meant to be conscious of our collective duty and to accept that the greater good comes before personal interests.
I would like to comment briefly on the ethics of responsibility, which is something Quebec is familiar with, from the Select Committee on Dying with Dignity. The members of the commission were mandated by the Quebec National Assembly to hold a rather unique public consultation process, in which the members travelled across Quebec to meet with experts and Quebeckers.
The Parti Québécois's Véronique Hivon took the lead on this file. She handled the process transparently and tackled difficult issues in the realms of medicine, law, philosophy, ethics, sociology and psychology. The committee's work resulted in the passage of the Act Respecting End-of-Life Care, which came into force on December 10, 2015, in Quebec.
I see a striking contrast between Quebec's approach, characterized by the ethics of responsibility, and the federal government's approach. At the time it was passed, the Quebec law went as far as it could without running afoul of the federal legislative framework. Quebec was proactive in engaging in this social debate, whereas the federal government has, so far anyway, simply been reacting to court rulings. This is the old “government of judges”. Governments would rather refer thorny issues to the courts than take a stand. Maybe they are trying to protect their beliefs or avoid offending certain religious groups. Still, parliamentarians have a job to do.
I will now come back to Carter, in which the Supreme Court overturned the Rodriguez decision in order to give greater weight to respect for integrity of the person and the individual's decision-making authority. This opened the door to medical assistance in dying.
Previously, when religious values were more prominent, this situation would have been impossible. In this case, the Supreme Court served as a driver of social progress, but we cannot always turn to the Supreme Court. This raises the following question: Is it normal for elected officials to lag behind on social change and leave it up to the courts to bring legislation in line with the reality of citizens? This is not the first time that members of the House of Commons have turned to the judiciary to avoid making tough decisions so as not to offend anyone. Take, for example, same-sex marriage.
The truth is that these social issues must be discussed in the House with compassion. Bill C-7 responds to a decision of the Quebec Superior Court, which ruled in favour of Ms. Gladu and Mr. Truchon, both suffering from serious degenerative diseases. They claimed that the reasonably foreseeable natural death criterion was too restrictive in both legislative regimes, the federal and the provincial.
We are all driven by our personal convictions, but our thinking must transcend those beliefs. We have a duty to act with empathy. People suffering from incurable degenerative diseases should not have to go to court to fight the terms and conditions of the administration of medical assistance in dying.
In my view, Bill C-7 will undoubtedly make medical assistance in dying more accessible. We should be relieved that the bill specifically excludes individuals suffering solely from a mental illness from eligibility for medical assistance in dying. I think everyone agrees that this aspect requires further reflection, study and consultation. However, as legislators, we do need to address the issue of advance consent. Many people who reach end of life risk losing their capacity to consent. We therefore need to find a way to respect their choice, too.
At the end of the day, it is fair to say that our reflections on a framework for medical assistance in dying relate to the fundamental freedom of individuals to determine their own condition. Our reflections must be guided by compassion.
I know some people have expressed strong reservations about medical assistance in dying. I can only hope that such personal beliefs will not be imposed on those already suffering.
Lastly, I hope the House will follow Quebec's lead and approach this issue with openness and empathy, rising above partisan lines.