On Friday, October 2, 2009, Bill C-384 -- the private member's bill introduced by Francine Lalonde (BQ) to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada -- received its first hour of debate in the House of Commons.
Parliamentary procedure states that a private member's bill receives two hours of debate before being voted on at second reading. C-384 is tentatively scheduled to receive its second hour of debate on November 16, 2009.
Eight Members of Parliament spoke on C-384. Two spoke in favour - Francine Lalonde (BQ), Serge Cardin - (BQ); six opposed the bill - David Anderson (CPC), Hon John McKay (Lib), Jacques Gourde (CPC), Hon Marlene Jennings (Lib), Joe Comartin (NDP), Paul Szabo (Lib).
Francine Lalonde (BQ) led off the debate, explaining how C-384 would work.
"… it amends the Criminal code so that a medical practitioner does not commit homicide just by helping a person to die with dignity if ... the person is at least 18 years of age, continues to experience severe physical or mental pain without any prospect of relief or suffers from a terminal illness. The person must have provided a medical practitioner with two written requests more than ten days apart expressly stating the person's free and informed consent to opt to die."
Lalonde then spoke about the experience of legalizing euthanasia and/or assisted suicide in other jurisdictions including the Netherlands, Belgium and Oregon.
Lalonde continued by focusing on the attitude of the Quebec College of Physicians that appears to be considering a change in their position on the issue. She also spoke about recent polls in Quebec that appear to indicate that the majority of Quebecers support her bill.
She then spoke about palliative care and she emphasized that there are cases when palliative care does not adequately relieve a person's suffering. She quoted a palliative care doctor who appears to support euthanasia.
She then challenged the recent article from a group of 100 physicians in Quebec who oppose C-384 and who oppose the possible change in position by the Quebec College of Physicians concerning euthanasia.
David Anderson (CPC) spoke against C-384, making three main points.
His first point was, "… we need to understand that allowing people to die is a far cry from causing their death."
His second point was, "She talked about the fact that choice exists in other countries. While that is true, many of those countries (Switzerland) have developed death tourism, so that people go there to die. That is not in line with what we want either the heritage or the future of this country to be about."
Anderson's final point was, "It is ironic that she claims that an association for palliative care champions euthanasia. Is this not a complete twisting of the commitment that so many palliative care providers across this country believe in? They believe they are doing good work. They do not believe in euthanasia."
Lalonde responded, "It is about determining whether or not we should, by changing the Criminal Code, allow doctors who so wish -- only those who wish to do so -- to medically end the life of someone who wants to die, who has made that choice, who is at the end of life and who is suffering. That is the only question."
Editor's Note: Lalonde admits that the change to the Criminal Code would allow doctors to end the life of someone. The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has argued that C-384 is not about a person dying with dignity but rather giving the right to physicians to end a patient's life.
John McKay (Lib) made two points.
The first was, "The essential core of this legislation is that it would engage society in the ending of a life. It would engage the doctor and it would engage us as a society."
His second point related to capital punishment. He spoke about how the justice system can make mistakes.
"I would request that the hon. member (Lalonde) respond to the inevitable, the absolute certainty that errors will be made and that therefore she and I and all the rest of us will bear that guilt."
Lalonde responded by speaking about the recent report from Belgium that stated that only people who have requested it and who are suffering are dying by euthanasia.
Jacques Gourde (CPC) spoke against C-384. He was representing the government in his opposition to the bill. He said, "Bill C-384 is too broad in terms of its scope. Bill C-384 proposes to amend the Criminal Code to provide an exemption not only to the offence of assisted suicide, but also to the offence of murder. These amendments would represent a substantial change to the current state of the law on a matter that touches on life and death."
His second point was, "The proposed legalization of medical euthanasia and assisted suicide would not only apply to terminally-ill patients, but also to persons who suffer from severe physical or mental pain without any prospect of relief. Therefore, under this bill, persons who suffer from depression could request that a doctor help them to commit suicide. They could also request that the doctor carry out the act itself that would cause their death."
His third point was concerning the lack of safeguards. "In this respect, Bill C-384 contains a number of vague and undefined terms that could lead to interpretation problems and, therefore, potentially to misunderstandings or abuses."
"For example, terms such as 'while appearing to be lucid', 'appropriate treatment', 'severe physical or mental pain', 'without any prospect of relief' have the potential to be interpreted very subjectively.'
"Under Bill C-384, the doctor who would assist in a suicide or terminate someone's life would only have to provide a copy of the diagnosis to the coroner after the fact. This bill would give a doctor the authority to terminate life on the apparent consent of the patient."
Gourde's next point was, "I know that other countries have struggled with this difficult issue over the years, both in their legislatures and in the courts. While some countries have amended their laws to permit physician-assisted suicide and/or euthanasia, others have not supported such changes. In any event, regardless of what other countries have done, we have to consider what is right for our society."
He concluded by stating, "I would like to reiterate that I do not support this bill. … It raises a number of significant legal and policy concerns and, in my view, would not adequately protect human life. Bill C-384 would also have a major impact on current medical ethics and practice. Such substantial changes to the law should not be considered without extensive advance consultations."
Marlene Jennings (Lib) spoke against the bill by first reading the letter from the Canadian Medical Association opposing C-384. She then argued that the government and previous governments have not followed through on the research studies that need to be done before Canada consider legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Joe Comartin, the NDP Justice Critic, was the next speaker to oppose C-384. His first argument was in relation to palliative care. He stated, "I want to quote from a statement made by Dr. Balfour Mount, whose name I think everybody in the country would recognize as being a leader in palliative care in Canada."
"Mount said he is profoundly against euthanasia because it is simply not needed …."
"What he was saying is that it is not needed in the kind of care he is able to provide and that he has provided for the better part of 30 years, as is the case in my community."
"We need to look at our system right now. … At this point, approximately 20% of our population is covered by meaningful palliative care, hospice and a home care system. That is all we have in the country. Then there is another 15% or maybe 17% who are covered by partial assistance at the end of life."
"However, that is what it is about. It is about providing that system, and we are not doing it."
Comartin then spoke against the very concept of legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide. "I know there are disputes over this, but it is the analysis that I have brought to bear, and I think it is an accurate one. In spite of how we build that system, and I say that about the legislation my colleague has brought here, that is not what actually happens. Should we make the mistake of passing this kind of legislation, we are in effect giving our approval to doctors who are willing to do this, to family members who want it and to those individuals who are still capable of making a decision. They will simply figure out ways of working around the legislation."
He concluded by saying, "I think we do need a fuller debate on this, but not in this context. It has to be in the context of people living out their natural lives, and what we, as a society and legislators, have to do to ensure that can happen."
Editor's Note: In other words, Comartin says that we need to discuss how people live out their natural life before we discuss how they die.
The next speaker was Serge Cardin BQ who supported C-384. He spoke about suffering and the death of his father. He then challenged people who oppose euthanasia based on a faith perspective, by stating, "I can say that in ancient times, the Greeks and the Romans were able to bring the issue of suicide out into the open and ensure that it was part of public discourse and debate. That was in ancient times. They decided to discuss it honestly and openly, to debate the matter. Intolerance of suicide began to take root in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and was heightened under the influence of Christianity. Naturally we do not wish to go against people's beliefs."
Cardin warned the Members of Parliament that if they didn't deal with the issue, more cases would go before the courts, leading to a judicial decision.
He concluded by stating, "I am not trying to convince the members to say yes so that this bill becomes law tomorrow morning. What I am trying to do is convince them to consider, discuss, debate, and improve this bill. In the end, it is not up to us to choose. It is up to the person to say lucidly that, in the event something should happen, they want to have control over their life and, ideally, their death as well.
Editor's Note: Cardin's concluding remarks follow the same point of view of the euthanasia lobby in Canada who have been asking Members of Parliament to vote in favour of C-384 in order to allow it to receive a national debate.
The final speech on C-384 was by Paul Szabo (Lib) who spoke against the bill, making two key points.
His first point was related to the nine years he served on the board of the Mississauga hospital. "The issues of informed consent and mental competency, whether the person had all the medical information, or were aware of all the options or if there was coercion by family members or friends, are important issues to take into consideration."
His second point was about what euthanasia actually is. "The bill goes under the moniker of right to die with dignity, but the amendment to the Criminal Code would give a person the right to terminate a life before natural death. It would not give the right to die with dignity to someone. It would give the right of someone to take a life. That is a subtle difference."
He concluded by saying, "I hope as many members as possible will get an opportunity to address this. Palliative care workers are concerned about this. Organizations and hospices are doing their very best to give the best possible care in terrible situations. Disabled in our society are obviously concerned about whether their lives are at risk because someone decides they do not live in dignity."
Editor's Note: The first hour of debate for C-384 went very well. For us to strongly defeat the bill we will need more supporters to write letters, send post-cards, or meet with their MP. Please continue the work.