Mr. Speaker, “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”, so says section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In February of last year, the Supreme Court applied those words to strike down the criminal prohibition against assisted dying.
As a matter of policy, this was a welcome decision. Blanket bans are an ill-advised form of regulating conduct that is not inherently wrongful. The criminal law is a blunt instrument, often imposing costs beyond the benefits it seeks to achieve and it should be resorted to sparingly.
An optimal policy involves nuance legislation that protects those at risk without preventing others from making their own choices and directing their own lives as they see fit.
In response to the Supreme Court's decision in Carter, the government has drafted Bill C-14. The government states correctly that it is no longer a question of whether to legalize assisted dying but how we should do so. In other words, relitigating Carter is a futile exercise when the Supreme Court has already spoken, unanimously no less.
Still, it remains useful to understand how we got to where we are. If we are to adequately address the court's concerns, we should have a complete understanding of those concerns. Having studied section 7 of the charter in depth, I would like to first briefly explain what the Supreme Court requires of us on this issue.
Section 7 of the charter provides the right to life, liberty, and security of the person qualified by the principles of fundamental justice. A violation of life, liberty, and security of the person is only unconstitutional if there is also an infringement of a principle of fundamental justice.
The court has stated that those principles are to be found in the basic tenets and principles of the legal system. The key principle to understand on this issue is over-breadth, or what we refer to as “minimal impairment” under the classic Oakes test under section 1. If a law infringes life, liberty, and security of the person, over-breadth requires the law to be reasonably necessary to achieve an important government objective.
In Carter, the court first determined that the blanket criminal prohibition against assisted dying engages life, liberty, and security of the person. In the court's words:
Liberty protects “the right to make fundamental personal choices free from state interference”.... Security of the person encompasses “a notion of personal autonomy involving control ...over one's bodily integrity...”...
Second, the court determined that the blanket prohibition was over broad. The purpose of the legislation, as defined by former Justice Sopinka in the earlier Rodriguez decision, was “...the protection of the vulnerable who might be induced in moments of weakness to commit suicide ...”. In the court's view, the absolute prohibition on assisted dying went too far. While protecting vulnerable people is the law's object, it caught people outside of this class: those who are competent, fully informed, free from coercion or duress, yet choosing to end their lives.
We are now faced with new legislation, Bill C-14.
Our first job is to assess whether this legislation meets the criteria set by the Supreme Court. To answer this, we must first assess the government's objective, now a dual objective: one, to provide a means by which those subject to grievous and irremediable suffering can die with dignity; and, two, to protect those who wish to continue to live from coercion or undue influence.
Is this legislation reasonably necessary to effect these twin purposes? The answer is, unfortunately, not a resounding yes. It is a resounding almost.
I have real concerns, for example, that limiting access to those for whom death is “reasonably foreseeable”, however one seeks to define that term, would have precluded one of the applicants in the very Carter decision from accessing the new regime.
There is no evidence presented by the government that limiting access to terminal illness is necessary to protect the vulnerable, provided other safeguards are put in place, and it is an open question whether this provision is constitutional.
As one constituent aptly put it, “What Bill C-14 says is: I can express a desire to die when I'm terminally ill, but if I'm not considered competent, it won't count; I can express a desire to die when I'm competent, but if I'm not considered terminally ill, it won't count.” This should be remedied before we pass this legislation.
The remainder of the law may well fall within a range of reasonable options and therefore be charter-compliant. but that cannot possibly be what we aspire to in the House. We may have been tasked by the court to address the constitutionality of the current laws, but we are tasked by Canadians to go beyond that. The law we put forward should not simply fall within a range of reasonable options. It should be the best possible law we are capable of drafting.
I have met with many constituents over the last number of weeks and months to discuss this issue. In early April, for example, we hosted a town hall on the topic. It is, rightly, a sensitive topic for many.
My constituents' views and opinions have informed the following thoughts, all of which revolve around the importance of choice.
First, my constituents overwhelming favour advance directives. I appreciate that this is a complex area. It is one thing to assess an advance directive regarding a permanent coma and another thing to assess an advance directive regarding differing degrees of dementia. However, simply because a matter is complex or difficult does not mean we should not attempt to address it. I believe we need to look at advance directives more seriously and that many of the worries regarding stale decision making can be resolved by sunset clause provisions.
As former Chief Justice Lamer said in Rodriguez, the legal system should not deny consent but should seek to ensure that such consent “is as independent and informed as is reasonably possible”. With appropriate safeguards in place, witness requirements, competency assessments, informed consent through advance directives should be respected.
Second, my constituents overwhelmingly favour placing assisted dying within the context of end-of-life health care overall. Under our charter, access to assisted dying cannot depend upon the availability of palliative care, but, as a matter of policy, for there to be a real choice, we should invest significantly in palliative care options. The $3 billion promise for home care investments is a good start, but it is only a start.
Third, choice depends upon competency and capacity. A competent adult should not be defined by age, but by capacity to understand and to choose.
Fourth, a small but vocal group of constituents have asked for choice for doctors, the right to conscientiously object. It is important for the government to acknowledge the deeply held beliefs of some doctors and we must do our best to reconcile those beliefs with the importance of providing access to assisted dying across our country. It is reasonable to respect doctors' choices, at the outset a cautious approach, providing patients with a public list of participating health professionals across the country.
Fifth, and finally, a similarly cautious approach regarding mental health is also warranted. The foundation of the court's decision was autonomy and dignity, and mental illness, including depression, can impinge upon fully informed and free choice. The law does not require anyone to choose life or death, but allows Canadians to make that deeply personal choice for themselves. For some, the right to life precludes assisted dying, but for others, including former Justice Cory, the right to life includes the right to death.
I will support this legislation at second reading and I hope it will be improved at committee.