Elizabeth May Speech on Bill C-14 (Assisted Dying)

Mr. Speaker, I do appreciate the respectful tone and the way in which all members in this place are approaching an issue which I know could divide us. It touches on the sanctity of life, on issues of great importance to all of us, and on the question of human suffering that so distresses all of us. It interpretes a Supreme Court decision. Bill C-14 is a bill that requires a sobriety, a sensitivity and a respectful dialogue as we approach it.

Other members have reflected on what they have learned from their constituents. I think I need to share the story of what happened to me when I became the member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands. I was someone who would not have been comfortable with this bill. My constituents may be the most active group of people working for Dying With Dignity.

There are two Dying With Dignity chapters in Saanich—Gulf Islands. I was visited by members from the Salt Spring Island chapter. I was visited by members from the Victoria chapter. Over time, I realized that perhaps my riding had been sensitized to this issue, because Sue Rodriguez lived in my riding.

Her death in 1994 touched all Canadians, as we realized that she tried so hard to get relief from the courts, permission to have a medically assisted death. In the end, it was not possible through the legal system. We all remember her quite courageous and tragic death.

At the time the court told Sue Rodriguez that she could not find access to legal medically assisted death, she said: “If I cannot consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?”

These are profound questions that hang in the air still. Some of us might answer that none of us own our own life, our life belongs to the creator. Some of us may say, well, whatever one believes, each of us has the right to make our own decisions. Those people who might believe one aspect through faith have no right to deny someone else the decision that they want to take, to plan for a death with dignity.

In the course of listening to my constituents, particularly through a series of town hall meetings over the last five years, and through questions and comments that have come to me through the mail, I became persuaded that my job as their member of Parliament is to support access to medically assisted death.

Then my life experience as a lawyer kicked in, and I was very relieved when the Carter decision came down. I thought that at long last we now had legal clarity on this matter, and that Parliament can begin to resolve the issue through the work here in Parliament. The issue has been through the courts so often.

I felt that we were now in a position as lawmakers and legislators to deal with the decision in Carter. Just to remind us, the Supreme Court said that the Criminal Code sections that prohibited physician-assisted death violate section 7 of the Charter, and therefore: “….are void insofar as they prohibit physician-assisted death for a competent adult person who (1) clearly consents to the termination of life; and (2) has a grievous and irremediable medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”

The court was clear in this decision that we were not speaking of any possibility that one person could make a decision for medical assistance in dying for anyone else. This is a personal decision. The Supreme Court has said that a competent adult person can make this determination. What the court set out as the conditions that would justify medically assisted death was a grievous and irremediable medical condition.

I was disappointed in Bill C-14. I felt, after looking at the report of the special committee, that the legislation would likely anticipate where the court would go in future rulings, and avoid protracted court cases as Canada figures out how we accommodate medical assistance in dying.

The bill, in not fulfilling even the conditions set out in the Carter decision of the Supreme Court, would lead to more litigation and more suffering for people who now see that the Supreme Court of Canada has said that to suffer in situations like this violates their charter rights. If we pass Bill C-14 as it is currently drafted Parliament would be denying them their charter rights going forward.

Other members of Parliament have mentioned this. We know that the legislation is attempting to balance very difficult issues to ensure that there are robust safeguards—we have had conversations about whether they are sufficiently robust—the sanctity of life, and the protection of vulnerable persons.

The bill is close to getting it right but where I am really baffled is in the decision not just to say irremediable but to insist, as others have noted, that one of the conditions in section 241.2 (2) (d), is that their natural death has become reasonably foreseeable. I am afraid that is quite baffling, given what the Supreme Court told us what we must do. The irremediable situation was not described as incurable, nor terminal. That is a deficiency in the legislation and one that will not just disappoint people who are suffering, but calls into question the wisdom of this place in interpreting the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to protect charter rights.

Many have spoken about the second area as well. As I read it I thought this cannot be right. This must just to be bad drafting. They cannot mean this. In going through all the conditions, yes, there are safeguards there. There are independent medical practitioners, more than one, and they are not the undue influence of any kind. Not to go through every element of it, but as we have to go through quite a protracted process to make a legal declaration, and it would be fulfilled by independent witnesses, one has to go through all of this and then, after all that, at 241.2 (3) (h) we find that immediately before providing the medical assistance in dying the person would be given the opportunity to withdraw their request and ensure that the person gives express consent to receive medical assistance in dying.

This is gravely disappointing. The person who takes the decision that they want medical assistance in dying is now denied that, if their situation is one where we cannot reasonably foresee their natural death and where at the moment they have planned for and gone through this protracted process to ensure that they would have medical assistance in their death, now must be of sound mind to reassert and have the capacity to reassert that they have confirmed this is what they wish. This would surely deny many groups of people who had looked to the court decision in Carter as their way of knowing that they would have the right to choose to die with dignity with the assistance of a medical professional.

Many have mentioned these deficiencies in Bill C-14. There are others that have been raised by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, as a co-litigant in the Carter case. I am not out of sympathy with those, but perhaps those could wait for another time.

I do not see how Parliament could decide to wait for another time in ensuring that the legislation we pass now is in conformity with the instructions we received from the Supreme Court of Canada.

Calling on my background as a lawyer, as well as my commitment to my constituents, I look at Bill C-14 and ask how we could pass something that would once again be found by a court to violate section 7 charter rights for those Canadians who have met the test in Carter, but would fail the test in Bill C-14.

It is an enormously difficult question. I have enormous respect for all the voices I have heard in the House in this debate at second reading. I will vote for the bill at second reading, but I hope we are prepared to fix its deficiencies in committee.