The Commons: ‘This is not an easy issue’

Francine Lalonde: "We should not refuse them the right to die with dignity"

The Scene. It being 5:55pm, the Speaker moved on to time allotted for private members’ business, specially the resumption of debate on bill C-384. Approximately 250 of the 277 members, gathered previously to vote on a pair of motions, collected their belongings and departed for dinner.

The Speaker waited a few minutes for the House to settle, then called on the Bloc’s Francine Lalonde to restate herself. Clutching her notes with both hands, she stood and explained that C-384, her proposal, sought to amend the Criminal Code for the purposes of decriminalizing euthanasia or medically assisted suicide.

Ms. Lalonde introduced her first bill in this regard nearly five years ago. Her latest effort, C-384, was first read into the record last May. In the patience-demanding way of private members’ bills—an hour assigned each day to such business, bills rotating on an order of precedence determined by random draw—C-384 reached second reading and received its first hour of debate on a Friday afternoon last October.

Of this second hour, coming five months later, Ms. Lalonde was allotted the first 15 minutes. Punctuating her points with slight fist pumps, pausing periodically to sip from a glass of water, she half-pleaded with, half-lectured, her colleagues.

She referred them to various medical authorities. She pointed to the National Assembly of Quebec and its current study of the subject. Scanning the room to look at her counterparts directly, she attempted to reason. “Who can say with complete assurance, who can say you can’t help someone who is experiencing intolerable suffering?” she asked. “Can we call this a murder? Can we call this a crime?”

She raised questions of quality and control of life. She suggested we confront the fact that medically assisted demise might already be a reality. Putting down her notes, she spoke passionately. “We should not refuse them the right to die with dignity,” she said.

It was on this very idea that Conservative James Lunney stood next to oppose the bill. Citing Supreme Court precedent, he asserted the “dignity of life”—Ms. Lalonde and he speaking of the same thing, but agreeing on nothing.

Lalonde warned that religion must not influence the law. Liberal Paul Szabo warned that her bill would undermine the entire medical system. Conservative David Sweet warned of a slippery and serious slope ahead. He stated his respect for all who engage this debate, but questioned the language, lawfulness and ultimate result of Ms. Lalonde’s bill. “Is it really up to us to decide?” he asked at one point.

Mr. Szabo stood again, this time to expand on his concerns, both philosophical and legislative. “This bill is seriously flawed, inoperable and irreparable,” he said. Rambling somewhat, he predicted inevitable mistakes and spoke too of the proverbial slippery slope. “The thought of taking a life for any reason is incompatible with the Canadian reality,” he ventured. “Each day is a gift,” he concluded.

A smattering of spectators wandered in and out of the galleries. On the floor of the Commons, Ms. Lalonde listened to the discussion, periodically shrugging in frustration.

After Mr. Szabo, it was then Joe Comartin’s turn, and the NDP justice critic proceeded in his way, carefully and logically. Palliative care must be improved, doctors must be better taught to treat pain, the experiences of others jurisdictions must be studied, the errors elsewhere identified and considered. The day may or may not come when we are prepared to properly legislate in this regard, but that day is not here, he said. The law of unintended consequences must be considered, he added.

“This is not an easy issue,” he concluded in the evening’s greatest understatement.

The Bloc’s Diane Bourgeois stood then to express her support and commend Ms. Lalonde for her courage. She implored her colleagues not to vote this away, to take this opportunity to study and debate. “We must not brush it away. We must not reject it. We must improve on it,” she said.

She raised the story of a woman who had succumbed to disease three years ago and proceeded, in the most explicit and brutal of terms, to detail the suffering that proceeds death. The telling was harrowing. The gravity of this discussion, both profound and practical, made unavoidable to any within earshot.

The hour was by then nearly through. Conservative Mark Warawa was permitted a few minutes to begin his response, before the Speaker announced the start of adjournment proceedings. The debate paused then, on hold again until C-384 is called again to the attention of the House.

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