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 rise today to speak to Bill C-7, an act to amend the Criminal Code regarding medical assistance in dying.
The bill proposes a legislative response to the Superior Court of Quebec's Truchon decision, as well as some other changes to the Criminal Code provisions that set out Canada's medical assistance in dying regime.
In June 2016, former Bill C-14 amended the Criminal Code to create Canada's first law on medical assistance in dying, or MAID. The legislation created exemptions to Criminal Code offences so that individuals suffering unbearably and nearing the end of their lives could die peacefully and with the help of a physician or nurse practitioner, rather than in agony or in circumstances that they considered undignified.
This significant change in our criminal law was indicative of the value that Canadians ascribed to having choices, including about the manner and timing of their deaths when suffering in the dying process was intolerable. The most recent data obtained by the federal MAID-monitoring regime indicates that over 13,000 Canadians have received MAID since it has become decriminalized.
We are now proposing another important change to our criminal law. In Truchon and Gladu, the Quebec Superior Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to limit access to medical assistance in dying to persons whose death is reasonably foreseeable.
We decided not to appeal the decision because we want to reduce the suffering of people waiting for medical assistance in dying.
When we announced our decision not to appeal the ruling, our government also committed to changing the eligibility criteria for medical assistance in dying throughout Canada to ensure that criminal law is consistent nationwide.
Application of the court's ruling, which is limited to Quebec, was suspended for six months. The deadline is March 12. Because these issues are so important and because we want to ensure that our laws are consistent all across Canada, we have asked the court for a four-month extension, which would give Parliament time to thoroughly consider and debate the amendments proposed in this bill. There was a hearing yesterday regarding this request.
Consulting Canadians about the next phase of medical assistance in dying in Canada was crucial to drafting this bill. That is why we launched a two-week public consultation on January 13. The level of participation was unprecedented. We received over 300,000 responses, an indication of how important this issue is to Canadians.
At the same time, together with the Minister of Health, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion and our parliamentary secretaries, we held 10 round-table discussions across the country between January 13 and February 3.
This included round tables in Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. We met over 125 individuals, including doctors, nurse practitioners, legal experts, members of the disability community, indigenous peoples, and representatives of health regulatory bodies and civil organizations.
We are grateful to all who participated in the round tables. Their shared expertise and experiences were of immense value in developing this bill. I have no doubt that many will continue to engage in the parliamentary process as witnesses before committees.
The results of this consultation process will be published shortly in a “what we heard” report. We heard views on many different topics, but I would like to mention just a few.
From the public online consultations we heard that, while the majority of respondents think the current safeguards are adequate to prevent abuse, in a MAID regime that is expanded to persons who are not dying in the near term, a majority of respondents also thought it would be important to require additional safeguards in such a broader regime. Many round-table participants suggested two separate sets of safeguards in an expanded regime. Others shared their experiences with existing safeguards as they apply to those who are near the end of their lives.
Specifically, many felt that the requirement for two witnesses when a person's written request was made was too onerous and afforded little protection, and that the 10-day reflection period unnecessarily prolonged suffering.
Informed by these in-depth consultations, and by the Canadian experience with medical assistance in dying to date, along with many other sources of information, Bill C-7 proposes to respond to the Truchon decision by adjusting both the eligibility requirements and the safeguards. It also proposes to enable patients in certain circumstances to waive the requirement for final consent so that they do not lose their access to MAID.
We know there are other issues about which many Canadians still feel strongly but which are not subject to the Superior Court of Québec's deadline, such as eligibility in cases where mental illness is the sole underlying condition, advanced requests and mature minors. These will be examined in the course of the upcoming parliamentary review.
Before describing the proposed amendments, I would like to address the concerns we heard from many in the disability community following the Truchon decision and during our consultations. Disability groups were very clear that, for them, removing the end-of-life limit on MAID would create a law that holds disability as a valid reason for ending a life and reinforces the false perception that disability is equivalent to a life of suffering.
Our government is sensitive to these concerns. We strongly support the equality of all Canadians, no matter their situation, and we categorically reject the idea that living with a disability is a fate worse than death. However, we are also mindful of the need to balance these concerns, along with others that have been expressed, with other important interests and societal values, in particular the importance of individual choice.
The bill's objectives are therefore to recognize the autonomy of individuals to choose MAID as a means of relieving intolerable suffering, regardless of their proximity to 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. More concretely, Bill C-7 proposes to expand eligibility for medical assistance in dying beyond the end-of-life context by repealing the eligibility criteria requiring that natural death be reasonably foreseeable.
Recognizing that intolerable suffering also arises outside of the end-of-life context and that Canadians want to have choices, medical assistance in dying would be become available to all those who are intolerably suffering; who have a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability; and who are in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability, without regard to whether they are dying in the short term.
At this time, the bill proposes that persons whose sole underlying condition is a mental illness not be eligible for medical assistance in dying. First, we are subject to a court-imposed deadline and this matter requires more in-depth review and debate. We have learned that the trajectory of a mental illness is more difficult to predict than that of most physical illnesses. This means that there is a greater risk of providing medical assistance in dying to people whose condition could improve.
It is also more difficult to carry out competency assessments for individuals with a mental illness. In the case of some mental illnesses, the desire to die is itself a symptom of the illness, which makes it particularly difficult to determine whether the individual's request is truly voluntary.
Like the Government of Quebec, we are of the opinion that we need to continue consultations, discussions and policy development on the issue of MAID requests based solely on mental illness.
The parliamentary review that will be launched next June will be an appropriate forum for examining these issues, without the time constraints of the court-imposed deadline.
I would now like to turn my remarks to the question of safeguards. Many experts believe there are greater risks in assessing requests for MAID from individuals who are not nearing the end of their life. We agree. While these individuals would have a choice to seek MAID, the bill proposes that these requests be treated with greater sensitivity and care.
Accordingly, the bill proposes two streams, or two sets of safeguards. To distinguish these cases the bill proposes to use the concept of reasonably foreseeable natural death. Let me be clear on this point. Not having a reasonably foreseeable death would no longer be grounds for rejecting a MAID request; however, it would be used to determine which of the two sets of safeguards are required in a given case.
As enacted by Parliament in 2016, reasonable foreseeability of natural death refers to a death that is expected in the relative near term. It means that in light of all the person's medical circumstances, his or her death is expected in a relatively short period of time. Natural death is not reasonably foreseeable just because an individual is diagnosed with a condition that will eventually cause death many years or decades into the future.
In practice we know that practitioners are more comfortable prognosticating when death is expected in shorter time frames. The standard of reasonably foreseeable natural death provides flexibility in a way that maximum fixed prognosis would not. The standard also has the advantage of using language that practitioners have become familiar with over the last four years.
Those who are dying in the short or near term would benefit from the current set of safeguards in the Criminal Code, which the bill proposes to change in two ways.
First, the 10-day reflection period would be eliminated. We heard during the consultations that most persons have already given their MAID request a lot of thought by the time they sign their written request, resulting in the reflection period unnecessarily prolonging suffering.
Second, the requirement for two independent witnesses would be amended so that only one independent witness to the written MAID request is required. Further, we have added an exception so that health care and personal care workers who are not the person's provider or assessor would now be able to act as an independent witness.
Again, we heard that it is difficult for some who live in long-term care facilities or in remote areas to locate two independent witnesses. The purpose of the independent witness is simply to verify the identity of the person signing the request. The witness is not involved in the assessment process.
For persons whose death is not reasonably foreseeable, the existing safeguards would all apply with some additional ones. Specifically, the bill proposes a minimum 90-day assessment period, which will help ensure that practitioners spend sufficient time exploring the various dimensions of the person's MAID request, which, outside the end-of-life context, could be motivated by different sources of suffering requiring greater attention.
Also, at least one of the practitioners assessing eligibility would have to have expertise in the condition that is causing the person's intolerable suffering. The safeguard aims to prevent people from obtaining MAID when something could have been done to relieve their suffering or improve their condition.
The bill would also clarify the notion of informed consent for these kinds of cases.
First, a person who is not dying would have to be informed of the means available to relieve suffering, including counselling services, mental health and disability support services, community services, and palliative care, and be offered consultations with professionals that provide these services.
Second, the practitioners and the person would also have to agree that these means of relieving their suffering were discussed and seriously considered.
The bill also proposes to allow people whose death is reasonably foreseeable and who are eligible for medical assistance in dying to give prior consent if they risk losing capacity to consent before the date set for MAID. At present, the Criminal Code requires the practitioner to ensure, immediately before MAID is provided, that the person gives express consent to receiving MAID.
The bill would enable a patient who has already been assessed and approved to enter into an advance consent arrangement with their physician that sets out all the relevant details, including the date selected for the provision of MAID and the fact that the person consents to receiving MAID in case they lose the capacity to consent by the day in question.
Although this scenario was not covered in Truchon, experts told the government that it presents relatively little complexity and risk. Doctors also told us they would be comfortable with the idea of providing MAID under such circumstances.
To our government, compassion means ensuring that people waiting for MAID do not lose their opportunity to die in the manner or on the date of their choosing just because their medical condition robs them of the capacity to make decisions in their final days.
Another narrow form of advance consent would also be allowed in the unlikely event that complications arise after a person who has been assessed and approved self-administers a substance intended to cause their death and loses the capacity to consent to MAID, but does not die.
The patient and their physician could enter into an arrangement in advance, stipulating that the physician would be present at the time the patient self-administers the substance and would administer a substance to cause the patient's death in case the patient loses their capacity but does not die.
The data show that there have been very few cases of self-administration so far, perhaps due to fears of possible complications stemming from self-administration of a substance. Offering such an option could provide greater reassurance and allow more Canadians to choose this form of medical assistance in dying.
There are other changes in the bill that my colleagues will speak to, including changes to enhanced data collection and the monitoring regime that brings accountability and transparency to the practice of MAID in Canada.
A transitional provision would ensure that patients who have already signed their request when the bill comes into force would not be required to undergo any additional safeguards set out in the bill. At the same time, they would be able to benefit from the safeguards that would be eased, such as the elimination of the 10-day reflection period and the possibility of preparing an advance consent arrangement if it applies to that person's situation. We are committed to making the process as easy on patients as possible.
I would also like to briefly discuss the constitutionality of the bill. I have examined the bill as required by the Department of Justice Act. This involved consideration of the objectives and features of the bill. I am confident that the bill responds to the Truchon ruling in a way that respects the charter.
As is required by the Department of Justice Act, I will table a charter statement in the near future, which will lay out some of the key considerations that informed the review of the bill for inconsistency with the charter. This will serve to better inform parliamentary debate on this important piece of legislation.
I will conclude by thanking all those who participated in the consultations on medical assistance in dying and who contributed to the drafting of this bill. Bill C-7's proposed amendments to Canada's medical assistance in dying regime represent a fundamental policy shift, with the regime becoming less about end-of-life care and more about autonomy and alleviating intolerable suffering.
I look forward to working with all members of both chambers to ensure Bill C-7 is passed.