Madam Speaker, I rise today in the House to speak to Bill C-7, an act to amend the Criminal Code regarding medical assistance in dying. It is long overdue.
I want to start by saying that the Bloc Québécois is in favour of adopting the principle of this bill, because it clarifies two aspects of medical assistance in dying.
The first has to do with access to medical assistance in dying when death is imminent, meaning that the person is terminal and is receiving palliative care before receiving medical assistance in dying. At least, I hope that is the case, because people in palliative care are not always the ones to request medical assistance in dying. I will come back to this.
The second aspect has to do with people for whom death is not imminent, who were denied access to medical assistance in dying as a result of the “reasonably foreseeable natural death” clause in Bill C-14. The court struck down this criterion, which was the key safeguard. This is what Bill C-7 is designed to fix, and we are happy about that.
As we begin debating the underlying principles of Bill C-7, it will come as no surprise that I am discussing them. It is precisely because we, as lawmakers, did not do our job four years ago when we were studying Bill C-14, that we find ourselves debating Bill C-7 today.
This is a democracy, and parliamentarians, not judges, must make the laws. We, the representatives of the people, the lawmakers, must be the voice of Canadians, especially those who are suffering. Judges only interpret the grammar of justice. They examine the laws we make, as well as the rights and freedoms, and determine whether a potential infringement of rights and freedoms is reasonable or not.
In this case, the court has handed down its ruling: The provisions of the current law, the former Bill C-14, are an unreasonable infringement of rights and freedoms. Furthermore, before Bill C-7 was tabled, two courts had ruled that the Criminal Code, amended by Bill C-14, violated the right to life, liberty and security of the sick person suffering intolerably or with a terminal illness.
We have to be clear about the issue at the heart of this debate: before being legal, this is an ethical debate. On one side of this debate is the paternalistic vision of the state and medical practice, while on the other side is a vision based on the autonomy of the individual and its corollary, the principle of self-determination. I know that all my colleagues in the House have good intentions. They want to do good, they want the best for patients and they are caring. I am sure that during this entire debate they will reflect the very values they are advocating and they will be just as caring and compassionate about the interests of patients.
However, we cannot claim to be caring and compassionate, in other words wanting to do good and what is best for an individual who has reached their breaking point at the end-of-life stage, if we are interfering with that individual's autonomy and self-determination, and if we refuse to respect their wishes on something as personal as their own death. The literature is clear on this.
The basic question is this: What business does the state have interfering in a decision as personal as my own death? My life is my own, as is my death. No one else, and certainly not the state, is going to die in my place. The courts had to reframe the limits of the state's power to intervene because we did not do our job properly.
All I want is for us to understand what is at stake here. I am referring to the law, which my Conservative friends often put up on a pedestal. The value of autonomy is conferred by law through the principle of self-determination, especially with regard to medical care. That is what I want to discuss here today with my colleagues. Let's talk about the autonomy bestowed on a person by law through the principle of self-determination.
In the biomedical context, the principle of self-determination is associated with an inviolable rule, namely the rule of free, informed consent. The rule regarding free, informed consent to treatment has never been challenged in emergency situations. Patients always have the right to refuse treatment.
My question for my colleagues is this: Why would it be any different for human beings experiencing intolerable suffering due to an irreversible illness or condition? Why would it be any different for competent individuals who are neither depressed nor suicidal and who have expressed a desire to live fully until they reach the limit of what they can tolerate?
In the Carter decision, which led to Bill C-7, the Supreme Court ruled that the provisions prohibiting medical assistance in dying violated the right to life, liberty and security of the person. People like Ms. Gladu, Mr. Truchon, Ms. Carter and Ms. Taylor have not reached the end-of-life stage. They might not even be in the terminal phase of their illness. That does not mean they have not reached, or are not in the process of reaching, the limit of what they can tolerate.
The court stated that the restrictive provisions in Bill C-14 were effectively shortening the lives of such individuals, that they violated their right to life by inciting them to commit the act before they were ready. That is what needs to be fixed right here, right now. Bill C-14 did a fairly good job covering the end-of-life care for terminally ill patients whose death was reasonably foreseeable, with the exception of the requirement for a second consent, which is sometimes not necessary and means that people suffer even though they gave their informed consent.
There is no issue for people who are terminally ill. The dying process has already begun and is irreversible. Death is imminent and foreseeable. The issue we need to address as legislators has to do with people whose death is not reasonably foreseeable and imminent. Under Bill C-14, Ms. Carter, Ms. Taylor, Ms. Gladu and Mr. Truchon were ignored.
What we, the members of the Bloc Québécois, want is respect for the moral autonomy of the dying. We often hear the expression “dying with dignity”. I must point out that dying with dignity does not mean having a sanitized death. That is not what it means to die with dignity. The dignity of a person is derived from their freedom to choose and respect for their free will. That is what it means to be a human being. That is what it means to respect a human being. When that is violated, we violate the dignity of the human being.
Whether the death is unpleasant or not is not the issue. The crux of the matter is to allow the human being to make a decision about the end of their life. Unfortunately, in the past, we won the right to die rather than undergo aggressive therapies. At the time, this was called passive euthanasia. The person was left to die without much attention and without death being the intent. Palliative care was still in its infancy. There was a great fear of administering one last fatal dose of medication, but it always ends up causing death. Because palliative care is still care, it does not strictly count as passive euthanasia.
Patients won the right to die rather than undergo aggressive therapies, because people did not use to die from cancer; they died from the treatment. Medical paternalism has at times gone too far and has been less than helpful.
Today's patient-practitioner relationship prioritizes collaboration, negotiation and respect for the patient's choice. Patients alone can assess their quality of life, and that must be respected, which is why medical professionals must be transparent with their diagnoses.
Patients won the battle for the right to die rather than undergo aggressive treatment, and that evolved into palliative care as we know it. For a long time, palliative care was thought of as the only solution that would allow people to die with dignity, but if that is the case, why is it still so hard for people to get that care? If that is the solution, why is there still such a shortage of palliative care units?
Sometimes, even the best, most carefully managed palliative care in the world cannot alleviate people's suffering. Bioethics teaches practitioners to remember that patients come first, and that means listening to them.
That is true for Ms. Rodriguez, Ms. Carter, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Truchon, and it is true for Ms. Gladu and many others who have continued to suffer throughout this pandemic while they wait for us to do our job. Contrary to what some people think, these individuals are not suicidal. They want to live as long as possible.
I watched a very interesting interview with Ms. Gladu. What did she say to us? What did she want? She wanted the freedom to choose. Having this freedom greatly diminishes the suffering and anguish.
With Bill C-14, the government said its intention was to protect the most vulnerable. Is there anyone more vulnerable than a person who is suffering from intolerable pain, who is living with an incurable illness and who is being told to go to court for the right to choose and to die with dignity? Is there anything more important and more intimately personal for an individual than their own death?
I have a hard time understanding my Conservative colleagues' argument that the state must decide for an individual, when they are so economically libertarian. Several Conservatives felt that Bill C-14 went too far. The courts said that it did not go far enough and that it violated fundamental rights.
Elected members of the National Assembly of Quebec advanced the debate without pitting palliative care against medical assistance in dying. They chose to include requests for assistance in dying as part of a continuum of end-of-life care that is consistent with palliative care. Whether we are talking about a degenerative disease or an illness that causes extreme pain but is not terminal, let us not pit those two realities against each other. Respect for human dignity includes proper support when one is dying, which requires doctors to have the humility to recognize that they cannot always help people manage their pain adequately.
Our society recognizes people's right to self-determination throughout their lifetime but takes it away from them at the most intimate moment of their lives. In so doing, we think that we know what is best for people or that we are doing the right thing, when we are actually undermining human dignity, their freedom to choose.
There is no more important moment in a person's life than their death. Learning to live is learning to die. Learning to die is learning to live. I say that because the clock starts ticking the moment the doctor cuts the umbilical cord.
The Carter decision and the Baudouin ruling sent us back to the drawing board. We need to do our job as legislators and stop off-loading the problems and the ethical, social and political questions onto the courts. We have a job to do as legislators.
There is a sociology of law. In a society, the law evolves with people's consciences. I know I am straying from the technical details of the bill, but we will have plenty of time to discuss them in committee.
The bill proposes that a person who is not terminally ill must consent twice and be bound by a 90-day period. I really wanted to talk about advance consent, since that is about all that is missing from the bill.
Bill C-7 does not address degenerative cognitive diseases, which are predictable diseases. Doctors can tell patients how they will progress. People with these diseases often remain of sound mind for years and do not appear to be sick, but eventually, they become forgetful and then die. They can also experience complications from being bedridden or immobilized or conditions other than that disease. I think a person with Alzheimer's, for example, should have the opportunity to make an advance request. This bill does not take those people into account.
Still, I said at the outset that we agreed on the principle and the grounds for discussing this bill. We will have time to talk about these issues. I urge my colleagues to bring substantive arguments to the debate on the adoption in principle of medical assistance in dying.
I remember when the previous Parliament studied Bill C-14. I heard arguments about how we were putting ourselves on a slippery slope. Some people were practically saying that long-term care homes would turn into euthanasia factories. If evil people are working in our health system, they should be fired, no matter what job they do, because they have no business there. I am not buying the argument that this is a slippery slope because people are evil.
We must assume from the outset that everyone working in the health care system is caring and compassionate. Increased health transfers would enable these people to provide better care, and maybe there would be more palliative care units in hospitals. Even though people have been saying for 50 years that palliative care is the only solution, I do not believe it is. It makes no sense that people do not have better access to palliative care in this day and age.
I would like to end my speech, which I trust was a substantive one, with a wish for all of us, here in the House, concerning the delicate issue of the end-of-life. I sincerely hope—which is what the patients who turned to the courts were hoping for—to face death serenely, peacefully and without suffering. That is my wish for everyone, because that is the best wish we can make for a human being. We should imagine ourselves being at peace on our death bed and being able to let go because we have palliative care to support us in our journey towards death. That is the best wish we can make for a human being.
I am therefore calling for a debate on both the substance and the principles. I am also appealing to the humanity of all my colleagues so we can finally provide an adequate response to all those who are suffering and have been waiting for far too long.