Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-14. I start with reference to the Supreme Court of Canada's Carter decision, about which we have heard much.
In the opening paragraph of that ruling, the unanimous court said:
It is a crime in Canada to assist another person in ending her own life. As a result, people who are grievously and irremediably ill cannot seek a physician’s assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering. A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel.
I agree with the Supreme Court. The choice is cruel.
The Supreme Court concluded that the criminal law as it currently stands was not only cruel, it was also unconstitutional. The court found that section 7 of the charter required access to medical assistance in dying, subject to certain safeguards. That is where the House finds itself today.
Let us be clear. The question facing parliamentarians is not whether we can permit Canadians access to medical assistance in dying. That access must be permitted to comply with the charter. The actual question facing us is how to design the access. In terms of design, I believe Bill C-14 strikes the right balance. The balance is between the right, on the one hand, of a competent person who seeks an assisted death in response to a grievous and irremediable condition, as compared to the need to protect the vulnerable from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness.
Striking this balance is not simple. Nor is it permanent, and this is an important point. The balance must be calibrated and re-calibrated according to changing evidence and the evolution of societal values. Indeed, the Supreme Court's 2015 decision, which reversed the court's earlier ruling in 1993 in Rodriguez, is evidence of this very evolution. However, for now, in terms of where we are in 2016, I am firmly of the view that the bill would strike the right balance.
There is another reason why I rise before members today to speak in favour of the bill. That is because I have spent my career as a constitutional litigator fighting for people's rights, their human rights, their charter rights, their right to equality. Treating people equally means treating people with respect, according them dignity and according them autonomy. The bill would do that. It would give people control over their own lives, including the conclusion of their lives. It would allow those nearing death to pass in a manner of their choosing with less suffering.
In empowering choice, the bill would empower Canadians. It would strengthen us as a people because it is informed by a desire to give Canadians more autonomy and, as a result, greater dignity.
For the rest of my speaking time I would like to address two major categories of concern that this bill raises: the criticism that Bill C-14 does not go far enough to make medical assistance in dying available; and the opposite criticism that the bill goes too far and makes medical assistance in dying too accessible.
In this first category, the concerns are that Bill C-14 is not broad enough. They centre on three main components, and we have heard some of them this afternoon and in previous days of debate. For now, it is proposed that medical assistance in dying only be permitted for adults and for those who suffer from more than a mental illness alone. In addition, for now Bill C-14 would not provide for advanced directives regarding medical assistance in dying.
The words “for now” are important. The government has committed to an independent study of legal, ethical, and medical issues that are raised by each of these three different categories. This is important. If medical assistance in dying is to be expanded into any of these three areas, it must be done only after a comprehensive study of the benefits and the risks associated with permitting medical assistance in dying in such circumstances.
I was determined to hear from my constituents directly on this important legislation. Therefore, in early April I hosted a town hall in my riding of Parkdale—High Park on the issue of medical assistance in dying. The engaged constituents of my community came prepared with thoughtful and personal reflections, with concerns, and with questions, many of which related to these very three items I just raised.
While the residents and community, like me, are keen to protect and promote the autonomy and dignity of all Canadians, including youth and the mentally ill, the residents of my community also cautioned about moving too quickly in an area where the consequences of a decision were final and irreversible. They noted, for example, that in Belgium medical assistance in dying had been legalized and studied for a period of 12 years prior to medical assistance in dying being made available to minors. The mentally ill, it was noted, would be able to avail themselves of medical assistance in dying under this legislation provided the mental illness was part of the patient's overall medical circumstances and that the applicant was still able to meet all of the general eligibility criteria.
As one who has championed the rights of mental health consumer/survivors in my community, I know it is critical that before embarking on the path of increased access to medical assistance in dying for those whose condition is mental illness alone, we get this right.
As we have said repeatedly, our government believes in enacting legislation that is well reasoned, carefully analyzed, and based, above all, on sound evidence. The proposed independent studies into things like access for minors will help inform this analysis and critical evidence-building process. Importantly, Bill C-14 also contains a provision which calls for a mandatory review of the entire legislation every five years.
As I said at the outset, finding the right balance in legislation of this nature is not permanent; it is fluid. It is a dynamic process which can and must adapt to changing evidence and societal norms.
Bill C-14 is not an extensive enough category. We also find an argument relating to reasonable foreseeability. We heard questions about it this afternoon. Some assert that the requirement to Bill C-14 that a person's death must be reasonably foreseeable is an unnecessary barrier. Such concerns are unfounded. Bill C-14 is actually more permissive than any assisted-dying legislation in North America. In Quebec, an applicant must have a terminal disease. Bill C-14 is more accessible. It would allow medical assistance in dying where death is reasonably foreseeable, looking at the totality of the medical circumstances.
In addition, in each of the four American states that have legislated medical assistance in dying, one is required to have a specific prognosis that an individual has less than six months to live. There is no such temporal restriction in Bill C-14.
Finally, in the category of Bill C-14 not being quite broad enough, some contend that the bill should stipulate, and again we heard it this afternoon, that medical practitioners are professionally bound to provide such service. This criticism misunderstands the nature of Bill C-14. It is an amendment to the federal Criminal Code. It is also misguided jurisdictionally.
Wearing my constitutional hat, it is clear that the federal government has an important role to play in maintaining universal access to insured health services, but the ultimate delivery of medical services is primarily a matter of provincial jurisdiction. Our government, as was mentioned by my colleague, has committed to work going forward with provinces and territories to support access for medical assistance in dying, while simultaneously respecting the personal convictions of health care providers. This approach reflects the balancing that must occur when addressing competing charter claims.
On the one hand, the section 7 claims of those who seek access to medical assistance in dying must be balanced with the freedom of conscience rights that are entrenched in subsection 2(a) of the charter. Those are the freedom of conscience rights of health care providers. The Supreme Court recognized this in the Carter decision, in paragraph 132, and this bill recognizes it in the preamble.
The second broad category is that the bill is too permissive.
In fact, those who maintain that Bill C-14 is too permissive are the ones who are failing in the fundamental responsibility to protect people who might commit suicide in a moment of weakness.
Requesting medical assistance in dying is not simple. Nor should it be. Requests must be made in writing. This has a meaningful impact. All such requests must be witnessed by two independent individuals. They cannot be a beneficiary in a will or a person charged with the care of the ill individual. A request must then be approved in writing by not one, but two different medical practitioners. Finally, the bill calls for a mandatory waiting period of 15 days in order to allow individuals to reflect on the seriousness of this choice.
The bill goes further. It requires an extensive regime of monitoring, so data and trends respecting medical assistance in dying can be obtained and analyzed by government. This kind of monitoring will ensure transparency, but more important, it will facilitate strengthening safeguards where required.
Finally, I am encouraged by the fact that Bill C-14 not only reflects the significance of choosing medical assistance in dying, but that every choice ought to be an informed one. By this, I am referring to the pressing need to enhance palliative care in Canada, a need expressed to me time and again by residents in my riding of Parkdale—High Park. If we are to ensure that the significant choice of requesting medical assistance in dying is fully informed, it is critical that we work collectively, in a non-partisan manner, to ensure that improved palliative care is readily available.
In conclusion, I reiterate that this proposed legislation is neither too restrictive nor too permissive. It strikes the correct balance, while simultaneously recognizing that with further study and mandatory review, the balance will continue to be re-calibrated to reflect new evidence and evolving societal values respecting medical assistance in dying.
Most important, the bill would eliminate the cruel choice that the Supreme Court described in the opening paragraph of the Carter decision. No longer will grievously ill Canadians be faced with either taking their own life prematurely or prolonged suffering until they die. Bill C-14 would give such Canadians what the charter requires, autonomy. It would give them control over their passing in a manner that ensures their dignity. For this reason, I will be supporting this legislation.