Mr. Speaker, it is in indeed an honour to stand here in this specific debate as proposed by our party, the Liberal Party of Canada, and our caucus. As we have had many discussions about this in the past, I want to talk about this.
I have some experience with palliative care in my riding in central Newfoundland. It is always a painful experience for a lot of people here, and more so for others in the House who have spoken so powerfully about it, such as the hon. member for Timmins—James Bay did earlier, and has done so in the past.
For the record, I want to read the text of the motion to the House. For great part, it is mostly about the text of the motion, which talks about the Supreme Court ruling and how we have to deal with that. However, it is also a question of process and how we as members can deal with this situation.
I neglected to mention earlier, Mr. Speaker, that I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Scarborough—Guildwood.
The text of the motion is, in part:
That (a) the House recognize that (i) the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the prohibition on physician-assisted dying violates Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice”, (ii) the Supreme Court has suspended the implementation of its ruling for 12 months, (iii) the expected federal election and summer recess limit the remaining sitting days in 2015, (iv) Canadians expect Parliamentarians to take a leadership role on this issue and engage with it in an informed and respectful way, (v) a nonpartisan, deliberate and effective discussion took place on this issue in the Quebec National Assembly, (vi) Parliament has a responsibility to respond to the Supreme Court ruling...
Let me get to that for a moment, and talk about the special committee and the history behind this.
The unanimous decision by all nine Supreme Court justices, which took place on February 6, upheld an earlier ruling by a British Columbia judge who determined that laws outlawing physician-assisted dying contravened the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In particular, the prohibitions unjustifiably violated section 7 of the charter. It states, “the life, liberty and security of the person”, and it does that in three specific ways: first, by forcing some people to commit suicide early out of fear of incapacity, such as the case in life; second, by denying those people decisions on their bodily integrity and medical care, and that goes to liberty; and three, by leaving people to endure intolerable suffering, which goes to security of the person.
Constitutionally, the court found that the prohibitions went disproportionately beyond their purpose, by capturing people who were not vulnerable to coercion in times of weakness. That has been a large part of the debate, which I will touch on a bit later. Many groups, interest groups and citizens, have already openly discussed this, not in an official forum, which we would like to see here and which is proposed within this motion, but through social media in particular and through many special interest groups and their fora.
The court stated that the prohibition of physician-assisted death was of no force or effect to the extent that two conditions were met. The first was that the person was a competent adult who clearly consented to dying. The second was that the person “...has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition”.
This decision overturned the earlier Supreme Court decision that went back to Rodriguez v. British Columbia, or the Attorney General, in 1993. Everybody remembers the story of Sue Rodriguez and her fight on this issue, a valiant one at that.
The remedy was a declaration of invalidity that was suspended for 12 months. This remedy did not compel physicians to provide assistance in dying. There compels us to act as legislators by first discussing this issue within the parliamentary precinct. That is why we talk about this special committee to be struck in order to discuss this issue at length.
I do not think it specifies that we have to stick specifically to this position. It would be great if the committee could launch into discussions about a legislative framework, as my colleague from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, pointed out. He pointed out that we could talk about a legislative framework for this to discuss the palliative care strategy, which many people have discussed in this House, certainly in the past 10 years I have been here, and it should play a big role in this discussion.
There is a 12-month period into which we have to fit. Time is somewhat limited, of course, as I mentioned earlier. There is a scheduled federal election in the fall, which rules out that period of time, plus of course the summer recess. That gives us the days between now and the end of June. I certainly think this would be a golden opportunity for us.
Just by way of background, the terms euthanasia and physician-assisted death should not be used interchangeably, as euthanasia means terminating someone's life for compassionate reasons with or without consent. Physician-assisted death requires consent.
In a 2014 Ipsos Reid poll, 84% of people surveyed agreed that “[a] doctor should be able to help someone end their life if the person is a competent adult who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and repeatedly asks for assistance to die”. That is a pretty comprehensive question to be asking the general public, and over 80% returned in favour of it.
However, that does not negate the fact that discussion needs to be had about how this will be implemented across the country; first, how we would adjust the Criminal Code to provide this, if this is what Canadians want, and as we study this.
I would just like to quote from an article. This is from the Canadian Medical Association. It put out a lot of material on this. Its stance, too, has softened over the past many years. I have spoken about this in my riding, to a gentlemen in my riding, Dr. John Haggie, who is a former president of the CMA. The CMA quotes several of the physicians who are close to the subject, whether it be physician-assisted dying or palliative care. For close to two years the association has been studying medical aid to dying as it is regulated in Europe and in five U.S. states.
The CMA has also held town hall meetings across Canada to canvass the feelings of the general public and doctors, and Dr. Chris Simpson, the CMA president, said in an interview:
We'd like to bring that expertise and reflect what we heard to the table, so that we can come up with a system that meticulously protects vulnerable people but one that provides access to medical aid in dying for those who need it.
That is from Dr. Chris Simpson, the CMA president. He talks about the forum that they have at their disposal; so they take this to the public, they have a discussion, and they would like to report back, but to report back to whom? This is a golden opportunity to bring this back to the committee that we are discussing in this motion today, a special legislative committee to look at this. It would be great to hear from the Canadian Medical Association, which has done so much work on this.
Here are just a few more quotes from this. Some doctors welcome the decision, including Dr. James Downar, a palliative care physician at Toronto's University Health Network who wrote a Canadian Medical Association journal commentary on physician-assisted death. That was in 2014.
Downar said it is critical that legislators involve stakeholders in crafting a process to ensure all Canadians have access to physicians who will assist them in dying if they meet prescribed conditions.
This is very important for the Canadian Medical Association:
Any process must also require doctors who have a conscientious objection to refer patients to a colleague who will medically assist them with dying.
Other palliative care physicians, however, are deeply concerned about the Supreme Court decision. It will negatively affect their relationship with their patients. Dr. Jessica Simon is one of them:
Our role is that we don't hasten the end of life, but we allow people to live as fully as they can before they die.
The intentional act of ending someone's life is not part of palliative medicine. She says:
I've never had a case where someone has had to die in order to relieve their suffering, because we have other tools at our disposal, including palliative sedation.
Whether we agree with these specific physicians is one thing, but we are saying today that these particular physicians need to be heard, to report back to our parliamentary system that we have here, and that is what this motion seeks to put in motion over the coming year.