moved that Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and to make related amendments to other Acts (medical assistance in dying), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to address Bill C-14, which would, for the first time in our country's history, create a federal legislative framework to permit medical assistance in dying across Canada.
Before I begin my remarks today, I want to acknowledge that medical assistance in dying is a challenging issue for all Canadians. It is difficult. Death and dying are not things that we are comfortable talking about in our society. We all have stories of our families and those people close to us, which touch us and challenge us in this regard. Nonetheless, since the release of last year's decision in the Supreme Court of Canada in the Carter case, this government has not shied away from having difficult conversations with Canadians.
Equally, I want to recognize that we did not wrestle with these issues alone. I commend the dedicated efforts of all the individuals and organizations that have made tremendous contributions to the public debate and dialogue around how we implement medical assistance in dying in Canada.
I do not have time to include in my remarks today all the names of the people who have been involved, but I would first like to recognize the members of the special joint committee who exemplified dedication and service to Canadians in delivering a comprehensive report under extremely difficult and tight time constraints. Their task was not easy, but they rose to the challenge.
I also want to acknowledge the work of the federal external panel and the provincial expert advisory group, as well as the thousands of individual Canadians, experts, and organizations that participated in these consultations.
I would like to stress how invaluable all of this input and evidence was in the development of the bill, as explained and referenced in the Department of Justice legislative background on Bill C-14, which I will be tabling later this morning and which will be available on the Justice Canada website at the time. The bill that is before the House today is the culmination of all of these efforts.
From the start, we have known from the Supreme Court of Canada's unanimous Carter decision, that it is not about whether or not to have medical assistance in dying; it is about how we will do it. We are keenly aware of the diverse perspectives on this issue, and each of them raises worthy considerations. We have also looked carefully at the evidence from other jurisdictions that permit medical assistance in dying.
With all of this in mind, and in appreciating the limited time frame we have had to respond to the Carter decision, our government has chosen an approach that respects both the charter and the needs and values of Canadians.
First, it would permit physicians and nurse practitioners to provide medical assistance in dying, so that patients who are suffering intolerably from a serious medical condition, and whose death is reasonably foreseeable given all of their medical circumstances, can have a peaceful death and not be forced to endure slow and painful suffering.
Second, it would commit to study the other situations in which a request for medical assistance in dying might be made; situations that were not in evidence before the court in the Carter litigation and were beyond the scope of its ruling.
This evidenced-based approach will allow us to respect the autonomy and the charter rights of Canadians while ensuring robust protections for vulnerable persons. It is the right approach for our country.
Our government, under the leadership of my colleague, the Minister of Health, will be bringing forward non-legislative approaches to support the bill, including an end-of-life care coordination system for linking patients to willing providers, and in the context of a new health accord, we will promote the improvements to palliative care across the country.
To ensure public safety, the bill would re-enact section 14 and subsection 241(b) of the Criminal Code, but provide exemptions to permit medical assistance in dying for eligible persons. The bill would limit eligibility to persons 18 years and over who are capable of making decisions with respect to their health.
The bill would require that the person be competent at the time that the medical assistance in dying is provided, which practically means that advance directives would not be permitted. Requests must be fully informed and free from coercion, to ensure they reflect the person's true wishes.
The bill would also require that the person have a grievous and irremediable condition, which is defined in the bill. The definition is intended to be applied flexibly by physicians and nurse practitioners who can use their training, ethics, and good judgment to apply the criteria.
To be clear, the bill does not require that people be dying from a fatal illness or disease or be terminally ill. Rather, it uses more flexible wording; namely, that “their natural death has become reasonably foreseeable, taking into account all of their medical circumstances”. This language was deliberately chosen to ensure that people who are on a trajectory toward death in a wide range of circumstances can choose a peaceful death instead of having to endure a long or painful one.
As the Supreme Court of Canada noted, Gloria Taylor was dying from a terminal illness and would be eligible. So too would Kay Carter, who was 89 and according to the court suffered from spinal stenosis, which itself does not cause death but can become life-threatening in conjunction with other circumstances such as age and frailty.
This approach to eligibility responds directly to the Supreme Court's ruling, as it noted in paragraph 127:
The scope of this declaration is intended to respond to the factual circumstances in this case. We make no pronouncement on other situations where physician-assisted dying may be sought.
In our view the people captured by the court's ruling would be eligible under the proposed legislation. Moreover, the legislation proposes a workable standard. The Canadian Medical Association, in supporting the legislation, has stated that the proposed eligibility criteria are one of several “critical elements to support a consistent, national approach”.
Bearing in mind that medical assistance in dying can pose real risks and equally that we do not wish to promote premature death as a solution to all medical suffering, these criteria may not allow eligibility for some circumstances, such as a person with a major physical disability who is otherwise in good health, or a person who solely suffers from mental illness. These conditions, in absence of additional medical circumstances, may not be associated with a reasonably foreseeable death.
Our approach in no way denies the suffering experienced by persons who would not be eligible. In partnership with the provinces and territories, we will do what we can to improve the quality of health services and other supports that are needed to enable such individuals to live a better quality of life.
We have listened to those who say that permitting medical assistance in dying as a response to suffering in life, as opposed to suffering in the dying process, will put already vulnerable individuals at greater risk. We recognize that medical assistance in dying will in many respects fundamentally change our medical culture and our society. It is appropriate in this context to focus our attention on facilitating personal autonomy in the dying process where the risks to the vulnerable are manageable.
The bill recognizes that procedural safeguards are necessary and appropriate in medical assistance in dying. The bill would adopt the recommendations of the special joint committee regarding the appropriate safeguards. For example, eligibility must be assessed by at least two medical practitioners or authorized nurse practitioners.
The bill would also set out a legal framework for a compulsory monitoring regime to ensure that we have Canadian data to assess how medical assistance in dying is working in practice.
This is an issue that will require close co-operation with the provinces and territories, and the monitoring requirements would only become binding after the Minister of Health brings forward regulations, which she will develop in consultation with those governments.
Finally, the bill would commit Parliament to review its provisions after five years.
In addition to the parliamentary review mechanism included in the bill, we will also undertake independent studies into three key issues that the Supreme Court of Canada declined to address in the Carter ruling: eligibility for persons under the age of 18; advance requests; and requests for medical assistance in dying solely on the basis of mental illness.
To be clear, the ruling in Carter was expressly limited to a competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life. Further, the Supreme Court stated that assistance in dying for minors or persons with psychiatric disorders would not fall within the parameters suggested in these reasons. Simply put, the court in Carter did not hear evidence related to these sorts of cases, nor did the Supreme Court find that there was a right to medical assistance in dying in any of these circumstances.
Regarding persons under 18, we are mindful of the evidence heard at the special joint committee that more specific study and evidence are needed, given the irrevocable nature of the procedure and the fact that minors are vulnerable by virtue of their age.
In terms of advance requests, where a person makes a request in advance for a form of treatment that they would want if they lose their ability to express their wishes, the risks of error and abuse increase when a person is unable to confirm previously stated wishes. In effect, a person loses the ability to withdraw their consent to die. They would no longer clearly consent, in the language of Carter.
We are also mindful of evidence that people often err in making predictions about how they will respond to future medical suffering. In the very few jurisdictions where advance requests are allowed, physicians generally will not perform medical assistance in dying under ethically difficult circumstances where the person is conscious but mentally incompetent to express their wishes. More study of this complex issue is needed.
With regard to mental illness as the sole basis for a request for medical assistance in dying, further study is also needed. This is the delicate balance that the bill would strike. Circumstances beyond the scope of the Carter decision will be studied. However, at this moment, we will act responsibly as we take our first steps as a country on this challenging issue.
A question that many have about the bill is whether it is consistent with the Carter ruling. There will always be a diversity of opinions about what is required to respond to a particular judgment, but it falls to Parliament not only to respect the court's decision, but also to listen to diverse voices and decide what the public interest demands. It is never as simple as simply cutting and pasting the words from a court's judgment into a new law.
The bill before the House today respects Carter and complies with the Charter of Rights. The court ruled that the previous law, which involved a complete prohibition, went too far in restricting the rights of Canadians like Ms. Carter and Ms. Taylor, whose natural deaths had become reasonably foreseeable, to choose medical assistance in dying.
As I have already mentioned, the court expressly stated that it did not pronounce on anything beyond the factual circumstances of the case before it. The court did not define the term “grievous and irremediable condition”. It left the task of definition, as well as the elaboration of public policy and safeguards, to Parliament.
The eligibility criteria in the bill are consistent not only with the legal principles of Carter but with the circumstances of the plaintiffs in the Carter case, including Gloria Taylor, who was suffering from fatal ALS, and Kay Carter, who was also in a state of irreversible decline and nearing the end of her life.
In finding that an absolute prohibition was unconstitutional, the court did not require Parliament to enact a specific medical assistance in dying regime. Rather, it directed us to address the deficiencies of the previous law. The court said:
...physician-assisted death involves complex issues of social policy and a number of competing societal values. Parliament faces a difficult task in addressing this issue; it must weigh and balance the perspective of those who might be at risk in a permissive regime against that of those who seek assistance in dying.
This is precisely what Bill C-14 does. It respects personal autonomy, protects the vulnerable, and affirms the inherent value in every human life.
The bill would create a consistent national floor in terms of eligibility and procedural safeguards under the federal criminal law power, which is there to ensure the safety of all Canadians.
The requirements we see in the bill would have to be respected across the country. However, provinces and professional regulatory bodies may also choose under their jurisdiction to add additional safeguards or requirements, such as how to respect the conscience rights of their medical professionals and health care institutions while ensuring access for patients. To this end, as I have already mentioned, my colleague, the Minister of Health, will be working with her counterparts to bring forward a coordinated system for linking patients to willing providers.
I want to say a few words about how the bill will give Canadians confidence that the risks associated with medical assistance in dying will be carefully addressed.
Ultimately, we want medical assistance in dying to reflect the true autonomous choice of Canadians who request it. However, we know how autonomy can be compromised in both overt and subtle ways. At points in our life, all of us are vulnerable. However, vulnerability is experienced disproportionately by those Canadians who are alone or lack social supports, who live in poverty, who face discrimination or a multitude of other reasons. Some people may feel that they are a burden to others or struggle to find joy and purpose in their life. The availability of medical assistance in dying must not inadvertently tempt persons who are experiencing these or other sorts of vulnerabilities to choose a premature death, nor should it suggest that dying is an appropriate response to a life with disability.
It makes sense to limit medical assistance in dying to situations where death is reasonably foreseeable, where our physicians, nurse practitioners, and others, can draw on their existing ethical and practical knowledge, training, and expertise in addressing these challenging circumstances.
Coupled with robust procedural safeguards, the bill would effectively respond to the risks and ensure that requests for medical assistance in dying are made freely, autonomously, and with the benefit of full information.
More fundamentally, our government wants medical assistance in dying to be there for Canadians, so they can have a choice of a peaceful death that accords with how they have lived their life, over a painful and prolonged one that does not.
Our government believes in the equality of all Canadians' lives and sees the inherent value in each of them.
Before eligibility for medical assistance in dying is extended beyond persons who are suffering intolerably and in a state of decline toward death, which is what the Carter decision was about, we need to be absolutely confident that we would not be putting vulnerable people at risk. We need to be confident that we are not undermining important policy goals and/or societal values, such as supporting Canadians with physical or mental disabilities to live out healthy lives and fully participate in our society.
I look forward to working with all members of these chambers on this incredibly difficult and complex issue, to ensure that before June 6, 2016, our country will have a law that respects autonomy and provides choice to Canadians, while also protecting those in our society who we too often lose sight of. Together, let us take this opportunity to build a consensus of which Canadians can be proud.
Finally, I am tabling a document, in both official languages, entitled “Legislative Background: Medical Assistance in Dying (Bill C-14)”.