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Physician Assisted Death Debate

Hon. Peter Kent (Thornhill, CPC):       Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Durham.     I think it is important for Canadians to realize that the legislation before us is neither the alpha nor the omega in the continuing conversations Canadians are having about physician-assisted death. The Supreme Court forced this legislative moment on reluctant politicians with the Carter decision, but the conversation has been simmering, occasionally percolating, for decades in hospital intensive care wards, doctors' offices, around family dinner tables and at the bedsides of loved ones, from holy pulpits and at congressional retreats, medical schools and law schools, from theist philosophers and from the atheist sort. Most personally, the conversation has been conducted within ourselves, in our own minds, in both sickness and in health.     If the proposed legislation before us is neither the beginning nor the end of our ongoing conversation about physician-assisted death, what is it? Where exactly are we?     First of all, I think it is abundantly clear that we are definitely not where the Supreme Court told us to go. The legislation before us, which I believe will easily pass the House, and should as well the Senate, is only an interim step that will almost certainly very quickly lead us again to the Supreme Court.     The official opposition has set as its highest priority safeguards to protect the most vulnerable in society as well as the conscience rights of physicians and other health care professionals. We are pleased that the government accepted recommendations from the Conservative dissenting report from the special joint committee to exclude minors, to include stringent safeguards to protect those with underlying mental health challenges, and to recognize the risks involved with advance directives, which I will come back to in a moment. However, there are still concerns with the proposed legislation before us.     First, a point that has been and will be raised by colleagues many times, and I believe on both sides of the House, is the lack of specified conscience protection, an assurance that medical practitioners and institutions may decline participation in physician-assisted death. However, I do not believe that should be a problem, because I do not believe there will be a shortage of physicians willing to assist those patients who meet the criteria for assistance.     Also, there are the concerns, again raised by many of my colleagues, on the need for greater provisions for prior review, for consideration of underlying health issues, and for the effect of possible psychological disorders on patient decision-making. I believe those matters should be thoroughly reviewed again in committee.     As well, many of my colleagues have expressed concern with the extension of the Supreme Court's specific direction that physician-assisted death be performed by medical doctors to also include nurse practitioners. We know the government's logic in broadening the responsibility is to provide for remote areas where qualified nurse practitioners now carry out many of the services traditionally provided by MDs. Again, I believe the legislation needs more specificity in this area. I firmly believe that many nurse practitioners are qualified, capable, and willing, but perhaps the legislation should explicitly state that nurse practitioners be engaged only as physicians of last resort in circumstances where no medical doctor is available.     I also recognize the widespread concern and resistance to the vague nature of such phrases within Bill C-14 as “reasonably foreseeable”. I personally accept such imprecise conditions because I realize that as magnificent as modern medicine is today, prognoses regarding the time of a final breath or a final heartbeat are still often only educated guesses. This is certainly worthy of further examination at committee.     Finally, one of the most important shortcomings in convincing Canadians to accept Bill C-14 is in the government's unkept and—I will be perfectly frank—broken promise on palliative care.     The Liberals made a campaign commitment to invest $3 billion in long-term care, including palliative care. The importance of access to palliative care in end-of-life decision-making was one of the few unanimous points of agreement in the special joint committee's report.   (1715)       We as parliamentarians can rush to meet the Supreme Court deadline of June 6, but at the same time, the government has a clear duty, a moral obligation, to put in extra effort to expedite fulfillment of that promise to expand the availability of accessible, affordable, acceptable palliative care for all of those who, for reason of conscience, faith, or choice decide not to avail themselves of physician-assisted death.      I firmly believe that choice must be extended, as I believe the Supreme Court clearly meant it to be in the Carter decision, to patients suffering from the specific diseases and conditions that formed the basis of the Carter decision: the brutally imprisoning final stages of spinal stenosis; the choking, smothering final stages of ALS; and the unrelieved pain of irreversible but interminably long final stages of progressive multiple sclerosis.     While I am on this point, I remarked earlier on the need to recognize the risks involved in advance directives for diseases such as Alzheimer's, dementia, and the like. That said, I believe advance directives must eventually be allowed in physician-assisted death.     I consulted with many individuals and groups in my riding of Thornhill in recent months and beyond. I greatly respect—profoundly respect—the advice and interventions of various faith communities, social agencies, and medical institutions and their concern over the need for greater protection of the most vulnerable.     My personal decision, which will determine my vote on this legislation, is a product of three individuals and their experiences. In my previous life as a journalist, I followed closely the unsuccessful legal crusade of Sue Rodriguez as ALS steadily increased its deadly grip and her rhetorical question posed to Canadians: “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?”     In the previous couple of Parliaments I became close with another thoughtful, courageous Canadian, a fellow member of Parliament, the Hon. Steven Fletcher, Canada's first quadriplegic MP, re-elected three times and just last month elected to the Manitoba legislature, who did not give up after his life-changing accident 20 years ago. He met immense challenges and he overcame them.     However, in two private members' bills tabled two years ago, which I seconded, and in testimony before the parliamentary committee this January, Steven made a powerfully convincing argument for self-determination to one day make a final decision. He said such a law would be based on an individual's own morals and ethics while stressing that there should be no pressure on that person from society, family, friends, or the institution they may be in.     I was also powerfully informed and persuaded by the tragically tortuous passing of my brother-in-law, Rik Davidson, a brilliant academic, through Alzheimer's. Should such an ending be diagnosed for me, I assure the House that an advance directive would be composed, and either under law or not, it would be fulfilled.     Finally, as a cancer survivor, I have had many hours of reflection, during treatment and since, to ponder the issues involved in this debate on a personal level. I am fortunate that modern medicine, faith, and an incredibly supportive wife and family have left me—for now—clear and happily continuing my late-life adventure as a politician.     I am honoured that I can participate in this debate to argue for the passage of Bill C-14, eventual broadening of this legislation's provisions, and immediate government action to expand palliative care facilities and services, because I passionately believe that the issue before us ultimately comes down to choice: the free choice of a competent adult individual to choose between accessible, affordable palliative health care and the constitutional right to physician-assisted death.   (1720)   [Expand]     [Table of Contents] Mr. Adam Vaughan (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (Intergovernmental Affairs), Lib.):       Mr. Speaker, the issue of advance consent or advance care directives was spoken to in the presentation to the House of the hon. member. My question is about how the timing in that regard could be spoken to in amendments to this legislation.     How would the hon. member see advance care directives provided at the age of 20 when the person will encounter difficulties maybe 30, 40, 50 years later? Alternatively, upon diagnosis of a situation and immediately entering into advance care directives, how would the hon. member model timetabling around that so as to review the person's decision before the ultimate act is pursued? [Expand]     [Table of Contents] Hon. Peter Kent:       Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for a very thoughtful question, one that has been asked many times in recent months as the Supreme Court deadline has loomed. There are a great many accounts written by Alzheimer's patients with significant medical and academic ability, who compose diaries from the time of diagnosis and their observations of steadily diminishing capacity.     There is a point, supported by an Alzheimer's patient in the final stages, and I would be surprised if they would allow that they themselves, even though they might be unaware, continue to that final stage. The burden on family, friends, and the medical institutions is overwhelming. The period of 15 days obviously does not work, but there are some worthy accounts which can be referred to. There was a great personal diary in The New York Times Sunday magazine a few months ago about an academic who was provided with mail order barbiturates from Mexico to be prepared when she realized she was in the last stages of fully controlling her life and her situation.     I think physicians and experts in this area could provide us with answers to the member's question.   (1725)   [Expand]     [Table of Contents] Hon. Michael Chong (Wellington—Halton Hills, CPC):       Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the member for Thornhill for his thoughtful views on the bill and for his personal stories relating to the bill.     In his speech, he mentioned that he did not believe the bill was compliant with the Supreme Court. Could he tell the House in what ways he believes the bill is not compliant with the Carter decision? [Expand]     [Table of Contents] Hon. Peter Kent:       Mr. Speaker, the reality is that the three parties to the Carter decision would not be assisted by Bill C-14. I listed the three conditions: spinal stenosis, ALS, and multiple sclerosis. All three of these particular afflictions would require additional legislative provision. I believe that is why the legislation will be back before the Supreme Court to order an extension of its provisions. [Translation] [Expand]     [Table of Contents] Mr. Pierre-Luc Dusseault (Sherbrooke, NDP):       Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his speech.     I would like to know what he thinks about the government's decision to use a different definition than the one set out in the Carter decision. The Supreme Court's decision used the term grievous and irremediable medical condition. Although the government was well aware of what was in the Supreme Court's decision, it decided to use a different definition.     What does my colleague think about the uncertainty this could create in the legal system and especially in our health care system? [Expand]     [Table of Contents] Hon. Peter Kent:       Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question. [English]     I think the answer is politics. As we have seen characteristic of the Liberal government in recent weeks and months, it is reluctant to reach difficult decisions. There is an attempt to keep everyone happy on every file, with procrastination and avoidance of the tough decisions that need to be taken. I think this is another case, such as with pipelines, military missions abroad, the environment. However, in this case, risk aversion has basically brought the government to enter a piece of legislation which does not go, as I said, where the Supreme Court ordered us to go. [Expand]     [Table of Contents] Hon. Erin O'Toole (Durham, CPC):       Mr. Speaker, I would like to start by thanking my colleague, the member of Parliament for Thornhill, for a very thoughtful presentation in this House.     A debate on Bill C-14 is an example of this House of Commons at its best. Canadians do not send us here to have unanimous agreement on issues of the day. We are here to represent our ridings, the constituents who have sent us to Ottawa. We belong to political parties. We have different leaders' roles. However, we are Canadians who bring an experience and a point of view to this chamber.