Mr. Raymond Skelly (North Island-Powell River) moved:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should urgently consider amending the Criminal Code to permit physician assisted suicide when:
(a) it is requested by the patient;
(b) the patient is terminally ill and will experience a painful death;
(c) two independent physicians certify that the patient's condition is terminal; and
(d) the office of the Attorney General for the province has reviewed the case.
He said: Mr. Speaker, the motion before us today is a variation on a number of motions that have been put forward in this House. The member for Fraser Valley West managed to put forward a motion, convince the House to support it on second reading and carry it through to a very useful committee study which dealt with the issue in great depth.
Today is the last opportunity for the House to consider this matter. The matter is also before the Supreme Court of Canada. It has been brought there by a very courageous woman, Sue Rodriguez, who suffers from the disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
This disease is fatal. As she describes it in The Globe and Mail of May 21, 1993 the reason she has brought this forward is, in her words, because: "I simply do not want to die a gruesome death". It is with a great deal of personal courage and a commitment to others who will
find themselves in the same circumstances that this matter has been brought to the Supreme Court of Canada.
I would also like to thank Nicki Segal, an intern who has done a great deal of work on the research and presentation of the material that we are going to be considering in the House today.
The issue that Sue Rodriguez raises in the Supreme Court of Canada, and which she has taken through every level in the court system, is essentially physician assisted suicide. She is asking that she be given the right to have her physician assist her in committing suicide rather than face the gruesome death this disease will inflict upon her.
Suicide is not illegal. There are those who have sought suicide in order to avoid a degrading and painful death. They have sought to have their physicians assist them with this action.
The other day I came across the case of a woman who had a friend who spent virtually every day in the hospital with her as the woman suffered from the same disease. The patient's physical condition had deteriorated to such a degree that only this friend could communicate with her. Every single day she asked to die. It is an important issue for this House.
Right now the Criminal Code prevents someone from assisting another in a suicide. Apparently the law goes back 101 years. It does not contemplate the realities of our society today where about 75 per cent of deaths are attributable to chronic degenerative diseases such as cancer, AIDS and a variety of other diseases. As we have been more and more successful in preventing certain kinds of diseases, these diseases are forming a major part of the health spectrum. They are characterized by a complete loss of control and quite often by a very serious and painful death.
In some cases, where an individual specifically requests it, people find themselves in a situation in which determining the time at which life ends can improve the quality of life. It can prevent death in great pain and degradation because of the complete loss of control
June 7, 1993
Private Members' Business
when the individual does not have the ability to control even the simplest of life's functions.
The proposal before us is that one more time we ask the government to bring forward an amendment to the Criminal Code. It would probably take section 241(b), which says that no one may assist another to commit suicide, and simply add a number of clauses to it. Those clauses would say that no one could assist someone to commit suicide unless it was a physician assisting a patient.
The physician could assist the patient in committing suicide if the patient were terminally ill, if the patient were mentally competent, if the patient repeatedly asked to be assisted in committing suicide by his or her physician, if the facts were certified by an independent physician, and if the case were reviewed by the office of the Attorney General, and that could be the local coroner, the Crown counsel or whomever.
If we ask this House, ask the government, to pass that motion, it could be put forward quickly. It could resolve the matter raised by Sue Rodriguez and others who ask to be assisted by a physician in committing suicide in order to avoid a degrading and painful death.
This is not an issue for the courts. At every stage the courts have asked Parliament to relieve them from a responsibility which is not truly theirs. In the initial instance through the Supreme Court of B.C. and even before the Supreme Court of Canada, the indication has been that this issue is not the responsibility of the courts.
They ask that Parliament fulfil a responsibility to these people to allow them to undertake an act which should not be illegal. We should not be bound by an antiquated law that does not recognize the changes in our society.
This is probably the last opportunity this Parliament will have to discuss this matter. It is not an issue for the courts. It is an issue for Parliament. It is unfortunate that the government has not put a bill before the House. It would have been extremely useful, on the heels of the motion put by the hon. member for Fraser Valley West, for the government to lay before the House a proposal for the consideration of Parliament and for the consideration of the people of Canada. It is now time that the government respond to this appeal. It appears that about 80 per cent of Canadians want something done.
I undertook a survey of the community of Powell River in my riding and the returns from that survey were many. About 75 per cent wanted something to resolve this matter. They are cautious about it. They want stringent controls but they do want to see us aid people who are suffering from a chronic terminal illness that is painful and degrading.
Many of them have seen their loved ones go through this process and they are asking that this Parliament do something. The courts are asking that we do something. Some of the people who are suffering from these illnesses are asking that they be given an opportunity to relieve this suffering.
It is my hope that the court will resolve the problem of Sue Rodriguez. In fact it is my hope that the Supreme Court of Canada will resolve the problem for all Canadians in this very narrow sphere and say that where it has been certified that the person is clearly terminally ill and where the person repeatedly asks, then after an appropriate review the court would permit those physician assisted suicides to occur.
There is an argument for the court to consider. That argument is that Parliament has a responsibility to grant somebody, through a change in legislation, a chance to exercise their rights. I am hoping that it will consider this approach.
The question becomes: Does an individual have this right? Does Sue Rodriguez have the right to ask her physician to assist her in a suicide? Let us look at some of the arguments. There certainly will be arguments put for and against it. We have to consider the fact that a very large number of Canadians would like to see something done by the government in this area.
There is the argument that this is a guarantee of liberty. The charter in section 7 guarantees that the individual has the right of self-determination. If a person does not have the right of self-determination to control their body, to refuse medication and medical treatment then it makes a mockery of the right to self-determination.
There was a recent article in the May 31 issue of Time magazine about Dr. Kevorkian in the United States. Dr. Kevorkian is operating virtually as a free agent, without control. The state of Michigan attempted to put a law in place to curtail his activity. The court has now overturned that and said that it is a denial of a person's right
to self-determination to commit suicide. That was the end of it.
That law has now been overturned and it looks as if Kevorkian can continue his practice, without any control whatsoever, over the kinds of activities in which he has been involved. This is unacceptable and really not a solution at all.
The argument is that this is a guarantee of liberty, that this legislation, if the government would accept it, would give Sue Rodriguez and a host of other Canadians who wish to pursue a physician assisted suicide the opportunity to be relieved from future pain and degradation and to have the right to control one's body. It is the right to avoid pain and suffering, and it is of course the right to avoid the indignity of a complete loss of ability to control any function of life.
When my colleague asks what right do they have, they do have rights. There is a right to liberty. There is a right to self-determination. There is a right to control one's body. There is a right to avoid pain and suffering. There is a right to avoid loss of dignity and there is even a right to commit suicide. The latter is not illegal. If a person wants another to assist them to commit suicide, we must consider this.
I would like to put forward another argument. The court originally dismissed this but it is certainly worthy of consideration. It is discriminatory, if there is an individual who is handicapped and one who is not, if the one individual who is handicapped by a chronic debilitating disease wishes to commit suicide, they may be impaired and unable to carry out that function without the assistance of a physician or someone else, preferably a physician.
There is a solid argument that one class of citizen because they are not disabled can in fact carry this out and another class of citizen who because of their disability may be competent mentally but unfortunately physically are unable to carry out the task competently. We wind up with a situation where we have created two classes of people by a law which essentially discriminates.
I would like the House to consider this legislation as empowerment, the ability of individuals to exert their
Private Members' Business
own self-determination over their lives. These people are going to die, there is no question about it. They are going to die a painful and degrading death and they have made a decision that they wish to determine the time their life will end. Unfortunately, we remove that empowerment from them. We say that we know best. In this day and age I really think we must reconsider the current law.
We need to examine this issue, especially this narrow issue put in front of us by Sue Rodriguez. We must empower an individual who is in a very terrible set of circumstances. We must give them the power to exert some control over their lives, even if it is to relieve themselves of suffering and degradation. We must give that empowerment to them.
The ironic thing with Sue Rodriguez is that the progress of her disease will render her completely incapacitated. She will not be able to commit suicide and she will not be able to communicate. She will still be conscious but unfortunately unable to do anything.
If we were to pass a law that permitted physician assisted suicide and Sue Rodriguez and her physician agreed on the circumstances when the suicide would be carried out, Sue Rodriguez's life would be longer. She would be able to live longer. It is an irony. If she is going to commit suicide she will have to do it sooner, when she is capable of controlling the circumstances and doing it effectively, which means her life will be shorter unless she can use the assistance of a physician. It is not just Sue Rodriguez, it is all other Canadians who find themselves in this circumstance and who wish to end their lives in order to prevent that pain and suffering.
We could be in a position to extend their lives by amending that legislation.
I would also like to cite the case of Dr. Kevorkian in the United States.
Sue Rodriguez has a commitment from a physician regardless of the outcome. Whether Parliament or the government puts forward legislation in this House, whether the Supreme Court gives her the right, a physician has said that he will assist her to commit suicide. Ultimately this is a humanitarian act.
Private Members' Business
We have created a situation because the law is no longer relevant. This law is not relevant. The needs of society and the needs of people will begin to find ways to circumvent it to meet a very basic need.
We will lose control because we do not have any guidelines, for instance, in the arrangement between Sue Rodriguez and her physician or with the next case or the next one. There are no controls over Kevorkian types.
However we could set some very stringent controls; that you need to be terminally ill, that you need to be mentally competent, and you need to ask repeatedly to be assisted in committing suicide so that you can extend your life. Ultimately you would need to have it reviewed by an independent physician and by the Attorney General. Then some controls are placed over this type of situation.
I do not think we can create a situation where we provide disrespect for the law, where we are unable to enforce it. Physicians are not charged and convicted in Canada for carrying out this kind of activity. Therefore the law is already held in disrepute. It does not meet the needs of the people.
Sue Rodriguez has gone a step further and says: "I have made the arrangements if the court and Parliament are not able to meet our needs". We must do something about this. I am sure it would pass this House in short order if the government could bring forward a piece of legislation that would meet the needs of people.
The arguments against it are interesting. They fall into five categories. Murder is still murder. The issue of murder is still murder if you look at the definition. I guess the five basic points that the critics of it bring out is that murder is still murder. In this case that is not it and I will deal with that at length at a later date.
Another point is that Nazi Germany ran an euthanasia program and that we are heading in that direction. Nothing could be more false and misleading. This is a democracy. It is one of the most sensitive and successful democracies in the world.
The kind of activity we are looking at is not destroying people's lives because they do not meet the social agenda. We are responding to the requests to be able to be assisted with a suicide. We want to empower those people to control their lives.
We cannot argue against a religious conviction that says that no matter what, God created life and God has the ultimate choice as to when it will end. If a person holds those convictions you cannot deal with the issue if you totally ignore the situation that when a person's life is going to end anyway, and it is going to end with pain and degradation, we do have an opportunity to control it.
They say this is the slippery slope. This is the fourth argument. Opponents say that if we do this then we will end up lining up the elderly and finishing them off because it will be cheaper for our health care system. The argument is that we will move from there to other forms of incapacity. We cannot argue that. These are individuals asking for a right and asking to be able to time their lives.
The fifth argument is one of the most interesting ones and it comes from Dr. John Scott at the Elizabeth Bruyere Hospital. I guess one of the key points in his debate against it is this. He says: "If we put in a euthanasia system, even doctor assisted suicide, we will get into a situation where the Netherlands provide no money to hospice care and Great Britain which does not permit physician assisted suicide or euthanasia does provide money for hospice care".
This argument is completely false. Ultimately this caring society is concerned about health care. It is concerned about properly funding hospices for the same reason it would give Sue Rodriguez empowerment and the right to self-determination.
If an individual wishes to end his or her life in a hospice situation we have an obligation and a responsibility to make sure that health care spending provides the opportunity to do that.
This is the last chance. Eighty per cent of Canadians want to see something done about this. Sue Rodriguez and her physician will do something about it, whether we permit it or not. I think respect for the law is critical and respect for the rights of other human beings is critical in this issue.
Topic: PRIVATE MEMBERS' BUSINESS
Subtopic: CRIMINAL CODE