moved that Bill C-7, an act to amend the Criminal Code (medical assistance in dying), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak today about Bill C-7, an act to amend the Criminal Code regarding medical assistance in dying, MAID. The bill before the House today is identical to former Bill C-7, which I was proud to have introduced in February following significant consultation among Canadians and experts. I believe this bill reflects a consensus among Canadians and I call on all of my colleagues in this place to support its timely passage.
As members will recall, this bill proposes a legislative response to the Quebec Superior Court's ruling in Truchon and Gladu, in which the court ruled that it is unconstitutional to limit MAID to persons whose death is reasonably foreseeable. That declaration of invalidity, which applies only in Quebec, was initially suspended for six months and subsequently extended by four months, such that it would have come into effect on July 12.
We were all working toward that deadline when this bill was initially introduced. As with many other aspects of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our usual parliamentary activities and it became impossible to meet the July deadline. As Attorney General, I asked for a further extension, which the court granted, until December 18, 2020.
Even though the ruling in Truchon and Gladu was suspended, Quebeckers who are experiencing intolerable suffering and who meet all the eligibility criteria except that of reasonably foreseeable death can apply to the court for an exemption that would allow a practitioner to provide medical assistance in dying despite Parliament not yet having amended the legislation.
Six exemptions have been granted since Justice Baudouin handed down her ruling in September 2019, and others are under review. The availability of exemptions limits the impact of the suspension of the ruling in Quebec.
I would like to take a moment to note the passing of Mr. Truchon, one of the plaintiffs in the case that led to these important changes to our medical assistance in dying regime. Like many Canadians, Mr. Truchon was concerned about the impact of the pandemic on his quality of life in addition to the suffering caused by his medical condition. He want the option to obtain medical assistance in dying, which he did in April. I would like to express my deepest condolences to his loved ones.
The bill before members today, four years after the enactment of Canada's first medical assistance in dying provisions in 2016, proposes a significant change to Canada's MAID regime in broadening eligibility to persons whose natural death is not reasonably foreseeable.
The 2016 amendments were, themselves, a historic change in our criminal law. They created exemptions to some of the most serious criminal offences, which aim to protect one of our most fundamental values, that of human life. These exemptions sought to protect and promote another of our most cherished values, individual freedom, and more specifically, the freedom to decide when enough medical suffering is enough and to choose when and how one's life should end.
Health Canada's first annual report on medical assistance in dying in Canada released this past July indicates that since then nearly 14,000 Canadians have received MAID. In 2019, MAID accounted for 2% of deaths in Canada.
The requirement for reasonably foreseeable natural death was part of a MAID regime that was adopted in 2016. However, we decided not to appeal the Truchon and Gladu decision because we agreed that medical assistance in dying should be available as a means to address intolerable suffering outside of the end-of-life context. To ensure the consistency of criminal law across the country, we committed to amending the Criminal Code.
Before amending the Criminal Code, we conducted an extensive consultation with Canadians. We gathered responses from 300,000 people through an online questionnaire. My colleagues, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, our parliamentary secretaries and I also held round tables across Canada with over 125 experts and stakeholders. The summary of these activities can be viewed on the website of the Department of Justice.
Based on these consultations and other sources of information, the bill proposes adjusting both the eligibility criteria and the procedural safeguards to respond to the decision rendered in Truchon and Gladu. The bill also proposes allowing patients to waive the requirement to give final consent in specific circumstances so that they do not lose their access to medical assistance in dying.
We know that Canadians are also concerned about other issues that are not addressed in this bill. I am thinking, in particular, of access to medical assistance in dying on the basis of mental illness. I am also thinking about advance requests for medical assistance in dying for people who are not yet suffering but fear they will be after they have lost their ability to request this assistance and who want to making their wishes known before that happens.
The upcoming parliamentary review of the medical assistance in dying regime and of the state of palliative care in Canada will provide an opportunity to give these complex issues the time and attention they deserve. It is up to Parliament to determine the scope of this review and when to conduct it.
COVID-19 has delayed this important review, but I am confident that Parliament will undertake it as soon as possible. That being said, our government's top priority is to meet the deadline set by the Quebec Superior Court in the Truchon and Gladu case.
Before I discuss the contents of the bill in more detail, I would like to note the important concerns of many individuals in the disability community about changing Canada's MAID policy from a way to avoid a painful death to a means of relieving intolerable suffering. It is crucial that these concerns not be forgotten as we resume our debate. In the view of many disability groups, a MAID regime that does not limit eligibility to those whose death is already reasonably foreseeable enshrines in law the erroneous view that disability itself is a valid reason for ending life. We have also heard from individuals living with disabilities, like Mr. Truchon and Ms. Gladu, that autonomy in how they choose to live and die is paramount. These are complex and nuanced points of view.
Let me be absolutely clear. Our government supports the equality of all Canadians without exception and categorically rejects the notion that a life with a disability is one that is not worth living or worse than death itself. I believe the fundamental principle that all lives have equal and intrinsic value can be balanced with other important interests and societal values, in particular, the importance of individual choice for Canadians. This balance is at the heart of the bill's objectives, which are to recognize the autonomy of individuals to choose MAID as a means for relieving intolerable suffering, regardless of the foreseeability of their natural death, while at the same time protecting vulnerable persons, recognizing that suicide is an important public health issue and affirming the inherent and equal value of every person's life.
I will now go into the specifics of various elements of the bill.
The bill proposes to expand eligibility for medical assistance in dying by repealing the criteria for a reasonably foreseeable natural death. Medical assistance in dying would therefore be available to people suffering unbearable pain, who have a serious and incurable disease, infection or disability, and whose medical condition is characterized by an advanced and irreversible decline in their capacity.
This removal of “reasonable foreseeability of natural death” from the eligibility criteria would mean that some persons whose only condition is a mental illness could be eligible for MAID. However, the bill proposes to exclude mental illness on its own as a grounds for MAID eligibility.
Our consultations and the report of the Council of Canadian Academies that studied this issue indicated that the trajectory of mental illness is more difficult to predict than that of most physical illnesses, that spontaneous improvement is possible, and that a desire to die and an impaired perception of one's circumstances are symptoms, themselves, of some mental illnesses.
This means that it would be very difficult to determine when, if ever, it is appropriate to grant someone's request that their life be ended solely on the basis of mental illness. In no way does this suggest that persons with a mental illness necessarily lack the decision-making capacity to consent to MAID, or that the suffering associated with a mental illness is of a lesser degree than the suffering associated with physical illness.
During second reading debate of former Bill C-7, some members noted their support for this exclusion while others raised concerns. This issue requires much more thought and debate. We feel the parliamentary review of the MAID legislation would be an appropriate forum for this.
The bill also proposes changes to the safeguards, since the existing safeguards were designed to protect persons whose death is reasonably foreseeable.
Expanding eligibility requires changes to the safeguards, since many experts believe there are greater risks in assessing applications for medical assistance in dying from individuals whose death is not reasonably foreseeable.
The bill therefore proposes two sets of safeguards. Each applies whether natural death is reasonably foreseeable or not. This is the only role that the concept of reasonably foreseeable death would play in the new regime. It would no longer constitute grounds for refusing a request for medical assistance in dying.
Reasonable foreseeability of natural death, or RFND, refers to a temporal but flexible connection between the person's overall medical circumstances and their anticipated death. It allows for clinical judgment, as it requires a comprehensive individual assessment that does not have a result in a specific prognosis and clearly does not require death to be imminent.
Individuals may decline towards death along trajectories of greater or lesser predictability. As such, RFND is not defined by a maximum or minimum prognosis, but it does require a temporal link to death in the sense that the person is approaching the end of their life in the near term.
We kept the RFND standard because it provides flexibility in relation to the difficult and imprecise exercise of anticipating when natural death might occur. A natural death that is expected within six to 12 months certainly meets the RFND standard. That was made clear when Parliament adopted Bill C-14 as an end-of-life regime. It did not impose a six- to 12-month prognosis requirement to preserve flexibility, but it still considered such timelines to be within the meaning of RFND.
A person's death may also be foreseeable in the temporal sense over longer periods, depending on the particular circumstances under consideration. However, having an illness that will cause death several years in the future would not normally meet the condition of RFND.
Safeguards for those whose deaths are reasonably foreseeable are based on safeguards that currently exist with two changes. First, the 10-day reflection period would be eliminated. Second, the request for medical assistance in dying will no longer require the signature of two independent witnesses, just one.
A person paid to provide health care services or personal care who is not involved in the assessment of the person's eligibility for medical assistance in dying can now act as an independent witness.
During second reading of former Bill C-7, some hon. members expressed concern about removing some of the safeguards.
Allow me to assure hon. members that these changes are based on the comments we received during our consultations and follow through on them.
For those whose natural death is foreseeable, many of whom spend a long time seriously thinking about what they want to do, the 10-day reflection period might unduly prolong their suffering.
We also learned that people who live in long-term care facilities or in remote regions may have difficulty finding two independent witnesses. These difficulties are exacerbated by the pandemic. The independent witness confirms the identity of the person, but does not participate in assessing their eligibility for medical assistance in dying. Only one person is required for meeting that safety objective.
Newly eligible persons whose death is not reasonably foreseeable would benefit from additional safeguards, the purpose of which is to ensure that sufficient time and expertise is devoted to the assessment of their MAID request. Where death is not reasonably foreseeable, the suffering motivating a MAID request may be due to a broader range of sources that warrant greater attention before someone's life is prematurely ended, to reduce the risk of providing MAID when there is a possibility of alleviating the person's suffering.
Specifically, the bill proposes a minimum 90-day assessment period, which would require that at least one of the practitioners assessing eligibility has expertise in the condition that is causing the person's intolerable suffering. A formal specialization or certification by a medical college would not be required. The bill would also require that a person whose death is not reasonably foreseeable be informed of and offered available means to relieve suffering, such as mental health and disability supports. In addition, the practitioner would have to be satisfied that those other means of relieving suffering have been seriously considered.
These are clarifications to the existing requirement of informed consent. It is our hope that these steps are already taken in all cases, but the Criminal Code would explicitly require them for those whose death is not reasonably foreseeable.
In addition to changes in response to the decision in Truchon and Gladu, the bill would let a person whose natural death is reasonably foreseeable and who has been deemed eligible to receive MAID to waive final consent if there is a risk they will lose the capacity to consent before the date on which they chose to receive MAID.
At present, the Criminal Code requires that, immediately before providing MAID, the practitioner must ensure that the person has given express consent to MAID and that they have the opportunity to withdraw their request. This safeguard, which attests to the irreversible nature of death and the importance of obtaining consent at the point of ending life, simply cannot be met if the person has lost the capacity to consent. This seems unfair when a person has been deemed eligible and was awaiting the procedure. In such cases, the rule could push some individuals to obtain medical assistance in dying earlier than they wanted to.
Under the amendments proposed in the bill, a person whose death is foreseeable, who has already been assessed and approved for MAID and has decided they want to receive it, could make an advance consent arrangement with their practitioner, setting out the date for the provision of MAID and their consent to MAID if they no longer have the capacity to consent at that later point.
According to round table participants and experts who looked at this question for the Council of Canadian Academies' 2018 reports, providing for advance consent in this way presents relatively little complexity or risk, and some practitioners have indicated they would be relatively comfortable providing MAID under such circumstances.
The bill does not propose to permit advance requests in contrast to what I have just described as advance consent. Advance requests are documents that may be provided at some future unknown date, if and when a set of expected circumstances materializes and when the person is no longer able to give consent. This issue is significantly more complex and challenging, and it will be examined during the parliamentary review.
Finally, the bill would enhance the monitoring regime, which is crucial for accountability and transparency. I have examined the bill for charter compliance and I am confident that it responds to the Truchon ruling in a way that respects the charter. I will soon table a charter statement that sets out key considerations about the bill's potential impacts on charter rights and freedoms.
In conclusion, these important amendments seek to guarantee that medical assistance in dying—