moved that Bill C-407, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (right to die with dignity), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I have come to the conclusion that the Parliament of Canada and its members cannot pussyfoot around any longer and expect the courts or government to make the necessary changes to the Criminal Code to recognize the right to die with dignity for the people of Quebec and Canada.
Any lucid person facing a very difficult and painful end of life, which they consider degrading, an unfitting end to the life they have led, inconsistent with their condition as a free person, has to be able to decide how they wish to die, including if they want to be aided in that objective. This does not mean that all lives do not deserve to be lived; quite the contrary.
The experience of doctors who look after individuals who have been allowed to be helped to die in countries that have passed legislation in this regard is enlightening. One might infer that, knowing that they will be able to get help to die with dignity when they reach the point where their life has definitely become unbearable, it will be easier for people to live fully a painful end of life or a life of extreme limitations because they feel imprisoned in their bodies. As Félix Leclerc reminded us, death is full of life.
This is a societal debate. A few years ago, some countries legislated on euthanasia and assisted suicide. From the outset, I want to emphasize that, in Canada, we have definitions of euthanasia provided in the report from the Senate of Canada which differ from the definition in Europe. In Canada, it is understood that euthanasia, which is the act of putting an end to the suffering of a person, may be either voluntary, that is at the person's request; non-voluntary, if it is not known whether the person wishes to die or not; or involuntary, which would mean against the person's will. Should we not agree immediately that a person's life ought to be interrupted at that person's request, under specific conditions and with safeguards in place?
So, the Netherlands, Oregon in the United States and Belgium have similar legislation. Switzerland, like Canada, does not consider suicide a crime. Assisted suicide, which carries a 14-year prison sentence in Canada, is an offence in Switzerland only if it is done for corrupt or selfish reasons. Death must unequivocally be the result of suicide. That is where, in 2004, Manon Brunelle, former assistant producer with Télé-Québec, obtained assistance ending her life from a volunteer organization called EXIT. She wanted to televise her death in order to promote the right to die with dignity and with help, under certain conditions.
More recently, in July 2005 in Quebec, there was the tragic case of Marielle Houle, in the late stages of a degenerative disease. Her loving husband, André Bergeron, had to leave his job to take care of her full time. He finally gave in to Marielle's repeated requests to die, but the circumstances were tragic. Now, he is out on bail, waiting to see what charges he will face. Her death illustrates the distress felt by many helpers, without financial resources, sufficient knowledge or any firm support to which they are entitled from the public system. The slippery slope must be considered from this angle too.
The Denys Arcand film The Barbarian Invasions brilliantly portrayed one reality when there is a desire to die with dignity: having money and knowing the right people can make up for the lack of legislation for everyone. Former Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé wrote, “Let's stop being hypocrites. Hospitals are practising euthanasia. They call it a protocol”. The lucky ones have always had a friend who was a doctor or a nurse who knew how to secretly get hold of what they needed when they could not stand it any longer.
In Canada, above all, it was the extraordinary fight by Sue Rodriguez, from British Colombia, to amend the Criminal Code that brought the debate on assisted suicide to the forefront.
She had Lou Gehrig's disease and in 1992 she sought permission from the Supreme Court for doctor assisted suicide, since she was physically unable to take her own life.
In 1993, five justices to four ruled against Sue Rodriguez's request. I will read an excerpt from Justice Peter Cory's dissenting opinion:
The life of an individual must include dying. Dying is the final act in the drama of life. If death is an integral part of life, which I believe it to be, then death should be protected as a right under section 7 of the Constitution. The right to die with dignity should be as well protected as is any other aspect of the right to life.
Since Sue Rodriguez's request was denied—five to four—by the Supreme Court in 1993, and despite the hope raised by the statements made by then Minister of Justice, Alan Rock, during consideration of the motion put forward by the hon. member Svend Robinson, which was rejected by the House of Commons, the federal government has done nothing.
Now, it is up to Parliament and the hon. members to act, since there are far too many people at death's door who are suffering and do not deserve to nor want to. This is not a religious issue. The religious convictions of some must not become law for others. We are here to create laws for the common good and out of respect for rights.
Some people's response might be “Yes, but there must be universally accessible palliative care”. I agree, but palliative care and the right to die with dignity are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. Moreover, the end-of-life palliative care policy adopted by the Government of Quebec in 2004 states in its introduction that the failure of palliative therapies constitutes one of the most difficult end-of-life problems. Even with a quality palliative approach, medication and other therapies may not have the desired effect on the patient, on his or her physical and mental suffering. This is along the same lines as what is on the web concerning the Netherlands' legislation. It states that there are, unfortunately, cases where care, no matter how good, does not stop certain terminally ill patients who are experiencing unbearable suffering from demanding that their physician put an end to their lives. In such cases, interrupting the patient's life through euthanasia at his or her request may be the appropriate conclusion to palliative care.
Moreover, the introduction to the Quebec policy also refers to the fact that certain physicians may make use of what is called continuous sedation, which consists of a comatose state artificially induced by drugs. If prolonged until death ensues, continuous sedation poses ethical problems, particularly because there is a risk of its being confused with euthanasia although not labelled as such. The fact that there are no guidelines for this practice is a cause of concern for a number of those involved in palliative care.
In 2003, a Quebec medical journal, L'Actualité médicale , contained an article on “Euthanasia: conspiracy of silence”. Some of the physicians interviewed said they would never want to die the way some of their patients had. That is what some said, but others, like Dr. Pierre Marois, spoke of hypocrisy and the conspiracy of silence, because euthanasia on demand is being practised in Quebec. He described it as an open secret, and felt objective studies were urgently needed in order to cast light on the clandestine practice.
I know that my bill is being faulted for having no safeguards. It is an exception to the Criminal Code. If the conditions contained in the bill are not met, then the code continues to apply.
I have a question. I wish the Minister of Justice were here. How is it that in both Quebec and Canada—they will tell you so in English Canada—there is evidence that euthanasia is being practised?
How can it go on without rules? How many cases of euthanasia are there in Canada of the first, second or third kind? Nobody knows. Studies should at least be done. My bill is being criticized for not providing for any, but it simply provides for an exception to the Criminal Code.
There is strong support in Quebec and Canada for euthanasia, the right to die with dignity and assisted suicide. Saturday's La Presse cited 71% support for euthanasia.
Since 1993, the last time the Supreme Court rejected this matter, countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium have established legislation. They parallelled legislation that I drew on heavily in my bill. These two countries have experience. The Netherlands has more than does Belgium, because, since 1995, medical guidelines have allowed physicians wishing to assist patients who are terminally ill or suffering from a degenerative disease without risk of legal action.
These guidelines have therefore led to broad experience, and the Netherlands established a law in 2001 drawing on the medical guidelines and requiring physicians to ensure that an individual was indeed free and informed and wishing to die. In addition, as they said in their legislation, the patient must “experience severe physical or mental pain without prospect of relief, but need not be in a terminal phase. All other possible solutions have been exhausted or the patient must have refused all other possible solutions. Euthanasia shall be performed by a qualified medical practitioner. The medical practitioner shall consult at least one other medical practitioner and shall inform the local coroner that euthanasia has been administered“.
Those who have read my bill know that these are precisely the guidelines that I am proposing.
In Oregon, they took another route. It should be noted that this is an American state where citizens voted twice on such legislation. Their act allows any adult suffering from a terminal illness who is a resident of that state and whose diagnosed life expectancy is less than six months to obtain a prescription for drugs to end his or her life. Under my bill, a medical practitioner would be authorized to write such a prescription, under certain conditions. The patient would have to make two oral and one written request for such drugs. Moreover, the patient would have to get the opinion of a second medical practitioner, and the two requests would have to be made at least 15 days apart.
The legislation in Belgium is largely patterned on that of the Netherlands. As for Switzerland, theirs is an interesting approach. Switzerland, like Canada, has decriminalized suicide. However, Canada has decided that aiding a person to commit suicide would carry a sentence of 14 years in prison. By contrast, in Switzerland, unless this is done for venal motives, a person—we are primarily talking about a group called EXIT—can help someone die. It must be clearly established that the decision to die is that of the dying person.
I met a young woman who told me, and this was very touching, that her husband, who was Swiss, had decided to stay in Switzerland when he found out that he had terminal lung cancer. He wanted to make the decision, as a free man, as to when he would die—surrounded by his family. That woman told me he died happy, even though death is not a pleasant thing.
I did not address my bill per se. Members have read it. The principles it puts forward are the ones I covered in my remarks. Obviously, I would like this Parliament to debate it. With all that happened in 1992 and 1993 concerning Sue Rodriguez and with the Senate report, we cannot remain insensitive to the cries of pain and desire for dignity of so many people who are facing death. We could be cowardly, knowing that these people are not likely to stage demonstrations with signs.
In closing, I will read this testimony from the daughter of a friend who died from cancer after suffering great pain and who had agreed to help me prepare and promote this bill.
As it turned out, her dearest wish—to die with members of her family holding her hands—could not be fulfilled. Had the bill drafted and put forward by Ms. Lalonde been passed, our mother would certainly have taken advantage of it when her life was no longer worthy of the name. Perhaps her life would have ended a few hours sooner, but this legislation would have been well worth it, to ensure that her wish was fulfilled and that she could have died peacefully near her loved ones when her life was no longer meaningful.
Who could object to a person being allowed to decide how they will leave their body, to put an end once and for all to relentless pain they are unfairly made to suffer? Having witnessed this unfortunate one-sided fight, I can assure hon. members that she paid too high a price for relief from her suffering. While people may be afraid to suffer and die, they are even more afraid of dying alone and without dignity.