Legislative Background: Medical Assistance in Dying (Bill C-14)

Archived information

Bill C-14, legislation on medical assistance in dying, received royal assent on June 17, 2016. For more information, visit canada.ca/health

Part 1 - Description of Proposed Legislation on Medical Assistance in Dying

The development of the proposed legislation on medical assistance in dying (Bill C-14) was informed by the evidence before all levels of court in the Carter case,Footnote 14 by available Canadian and international research, social science evidence, governmental reports and parliamentary studies.Footnote 15 It was also informed by the experience of existing international medical assistance in dying regimes, as well as by numerous recent consultative activities on such assistance, including the work of the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying,Footnote 16 the External Panel on Options for a Legislative Response to Carter v. Canada,Footnote 17 the Provincial-Territorial Expert Advisory Group on Physician-Assisted Dying,Footnote 18 the Canadian Medical Association,Footnote 19 the College of Family Physicians of Canada,Footnote 20 and the work of provincial colleges of physicians and surgeons, among others.

Bill C-14 would strike an appropriate balance between the autonomy of those individuals seeking access to medical assistance in dying and the interests of vulnerable persons and of society, through amendments to the Criminal Code to allow physicians and nurse practitioners to provide assistance in dying to eligible competent adults in accordance with specified safeguards. The legal effect of the new legislation would be to de-criminalize medical assistance in dying and leave further regulation of the practice to the provinces and territories (PTs) should they so choose. Medical assistance in dying has aspects that fall under both federal and provincial jurisdiction. The criminal law aspects of such assistance fall under exclusive federal jurisdiction and would apply consistently across the country. The PTs can legislate in relation to the health care aspects and civil law implications so long as PT legislation does not conflict with the criminal law. From a federal perspective, a reasonable degree of consistency across and within provinces and territories would support the underlying values and principles of the Canada Health Act - that is, that all Canadians should have access to needed health care services, which could include services related to medical assistance in dying, without financial or other barriers.

I. Legislative Objectives

The objectives of the proposed legislation are expressly stated in the preamble of Bill C-14 and include:

The legislative objectives in the preamble speak to the circumstances for which medical assistance in dying would be made available, but they also speak to the reasons why access would not be permitted in other circumstances. For example, the objective of recognizing that suicide is a public health issue helps to explain why medical assistance in dying is not presently being contemplated for people who are not approaching natural death. To permit it in circumstances where a person is not approaching a natural death could be seen as undermining suicide prevention initatives and normalizing death as a solution to many forms of suffering.

That said, the preamble also recognizes the Government of Canada’s commitment to explore additional circumstances in which a person may seek access to medical assistance in dying, namely requests by mature minors, advance requests, and where mental illness is the sole underlying medical condition. These circumstances are complex, and require additional study and consideration. As well, the preamble affirms the Government’s commitment to uphold the principles set out in the Canada Health Act and to develop non-legislative measures to support the improvement of end-of-life care in the country. In this regard, the Minister of Health has offered to work in collaboration with the PTs on the development of an end-of-life care coordination system to provide information on options and facilitate patient access to care.

II. Definitions

The Bill would enact new definitions in the Criminal Code for the purpose of the national medical assistance in dying regime. (see Annex 1 for a clause by clause guide to Bill C-14). The proposed new section 241.1 (clause 3 of the Bill) is a central provision of the regime as it would define the umbrella term ‘‘medical assistance in dying’’ as encompassing what is commonly called voluntary euthanasia (i.e., the administration by a medical practitioner or nurse practitioner of medicationFootnote 21 that will cause a person’s death at their request) and assisted suicide (i.e., the prescription or provision by a medical practitioner or nurse practitioner of medication that a person could self-administer to cause their own death). It should be noted that, in the case of what is commonly called voluntary euthanasia, the provision of medical assistance in dying would result directly in the patient’s death, whereas in the case of assisted suicide, the provision of such assistance would result in the patient obtaining medication that they could choose to use - or not - to end their life. This difference would be reflected in the new criminal exemptions, as set out below.

With respect to health care professionals, who are regulated under PT responsibility, the new section 241.1 would define the terms ‘‘medical practitioner’’ and ‘‘pharmacist’’ as those who are entitled to practise medicine or pharmacology under provincial laws (e.g., licensed professionals who are members of provincial colleges of physicians and surgeons or provincial colleges of pharmacists).Footnote 22 Although the term “physician” or “doctor” is more plain language in English, the term “medical practitioner” is already used in several places in the Criminal Code, and so is adopted to ensure consistency within the Code. The term “nurse practitioner” is defined in the Bill as a registered nurse who is designated as a nurse practitioner or other equivalent title, and who is entitled to autonomously make diagnoses, interpret tests, prescribe medications and treat individuals.

III. Criminal Exemptions

Culpable Homicide

It is a crime to intentionally cause the death of another person, even if they consent to die (section 14 of the Criminal Code). The Bill would therefore enact a new exemption from criminal liability for culpable homicide for medical practitioners and nurse practitioners who provide medical assistance in dying in the form of what is commonly called voluntary euthanasia, i.e., the administration of medication to a person, at their request, that causes their death (new section 227(1) of the Criminal Code, in clause 2 of the Bill). The Bill would also create an additional and related exemption for any other person who would do anything in order to help a physician or nurse practitioner provide such assistance. The latter category would include, for instance, a social worker who is asked to meet with the patient to help assess the voluntariness of their request, a lawyer to a hospital who is asked to review the documents to verify compliance with the law, or a pharmacist who fills the prescription for the medication to be administered by a medical practitioner or nurse practitioner to the patient.

The Bill would also re-enact the legal rule (section 14 of the Criminal Code- Clause 1 of the Bill) that says that a person’s consent to die is not a defence for someone who inflicts death on them. This rule was found to be unconstitutional in Carter. At the same time, the Bill would clarify that this legal rule does not apply in the case of a person who receives medical assistance in dying in conformity with the new regime (new subsection 227(4) of the Criminal Code - Clause 2 of the Bill). In all other circumstances, it would continue to be a crime to cause the death of a person who consented to die.

Aiding a Person to Die by Suicide

It is a crime to assist a person to die by suicide, whether or not suicide ensues (paragraph 241(b) of the Criminal Code). Assistance can be in the form of providing information about how to end their life, or providing a tool or other means that could be used. The Bill would enact criminal exemptions for the offence of aiding a person to die by suicide for medical practitioners, nurse practitioners and people who would assist them in providing or dispensing medication to eligible persons. The person could self-administer the medication to cause their own death, either at that time or at a later time of their choosing (new subsections 241(2) and 241(3) of the Criminal Code - Clause 3 of the Bill).

The Bill recognizes that after a person would receive the prescription from the physician or nurse practitioner (which meets the definition of medical assistance in dying in the Criminal Code as explained above), they may still need various forms of assistance depending on their state of health. For instance, they may need someone to collect the medication from the pharmacy, to open the bottle that contains such medication, or to lift a glass of water to their mouth so that they can swallow it. As these forms of conduct are prohibited under the offence of aiding a person to die by suicide, additional exemptions are provided in the Bill to address this type of assistance.

Specifically, pharmacists who fill a prescription for the purpose of medical assistance in dying and give the medication directly to the patient or to another person on their behalf, would also be exempted for this conduct (new subsection 241(4) - clause 3 of the Bill). Similarly, any person who helps the patient to self-administer the medication would also be exempted from criminal responsibility (new subsection 241(5) - clause 3 of the Bill). Any person helping someone to self-administer the medication should exercise extreme caution, as the decision to self-administer, and the final actions of doing so, must be those of the patient for whom the medication was prescribed. In any other circumstance, there would remain a risk of criminal prosecution.

Finally, the Bill would re-enact the offence of aiding a person to die by suicide, and this conduct will continue to be criminal in all circumstances other than those described in the medical assistance in dying regime under the Criminal Code.

“Reasonable but mistaken belief”

For greater certainty, the Bill would codify a common law principle to clarify that the exemptions would still apply even if the practitioners, or other exempted individuals, have a reasonable but mistaken belief about some relevant fact; for example, whether the person is 18 years of age and is therefore eligible to receive medical assistance in dying (new subsections clauses 227(3) and 241(6) in clauses 2 and 3 of the Bill). These would essentially function as a “good faith” defence for those who would participate in medical assistance in dying.

IV. Eligibility Criteria for Medical Assistance in Dying

Bill C-14 would enact a new section 241.2 of the Code, which in essence sets out the criminal rules surrounding the provision of medical assistance in dying. New subsections 241.2(1) and 241.2(2) would set out the eligibility criteria for such assistance in Canada. Under the proposed legislation, medical assistance in dying would be available to a person who meets all of the following criteria (subsection 241.2(1)):

A grievous and irremediable medical condition would be expressly defined under the Bill as (subsection 241.2(2)):

The proposed eligibility criteria would enable individuals who are intolerably suffering, in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability, and who are on a trajectory towards their natural death, to have the option of a peaceful medically-assisted dying process, instead of having to endure a painful, prolonged or undignified one. It would enable them to make a fundamentally personal decision concerning their bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity, which could also help prevent them from ending their lives prematurely, by providing reassurance that they will have access to medical assistance in dying at a time when they may be unable to end their own life without assistance. Individuals would have to be able to provide informed consent when eligibility is assessed and confirm their consent one last time immediately before medical assistance in dying is provided.

In Carter, the Court expressly stated that the scope of its declaration was “intended to respond to the factual circumstances” of the caseFootnote 23 and that it made “no pronouncement on other situations where physician-assisted dying may be sought”.Footnote 24 The proposed eligibility criteria would directly respond to the factual circumstances raised in Carter. The individuals whose cases were considered by the Court were either in physical decline and nearing death in the late stages of a fatal disease, or were otherwise nearing the end of their lives while in decline due to a condition that was not fatal in itself. This approach would also be consistent with the Court’s comparison of medical assistance in dying with other forms of end-of-life care,Footnote 25 i.e., medical assistance in dying would become another end-of-life option, in addition to palliative care and palliative sedation for instance, for intolerably suffering individuals whose deaths are reasonably foreseeable. The Court also recognized that assisted dying is a complex issue involving various interests, that a number of solutions were possible, and that Parliament’s response would receive a high degree of deference.Footnote 26 (see Annex B for more information)

The criterion of reasonable foreseeability of death is intended to require a temporal but flexible connection between the person’s overall medical circumstances and their anticipated death. As some medical conditions may cause individuals to irreversibly decline and suffer for a long period of time before dying, the proposed eligibility criteria would not impose any specific requirements in terms of prognosis or proximity to death (e.g., a six month prognosis as the U.S. states’ medical assistance in dying laws require). The medical condition that is causing the intolerable suffering would not need to be the cause of the reasonably foreseeable death. In other words, eligibility would not be limited to those who are dying from a fatal disease. Eligibility would be assessed on a case-by-case basis, with flexibility to reflect the uniqueness of each person’s circumstances, but with limits that require a natural death to be foreseeable in a period of time that is not too remote. It should be noted that people with a mental illness or physical disability would not be excluded from the regime, but would only be able to access medical assistance in dying if they met all of the eligibility criteria.

The requirement for the person to be eligible to receive publicly funded health services is intended to prevent foreigners from visiting Canada to obtain medical assistance in dying.

V. Safeguards

In Carter, the Court acknowledged that there are inherent risks in permitting medical assistance in dying, but agreed with the trial judge that these risks “can be identified and very substantially minimized through a carefully-designed system imposing stringent limits that are scrupulously monitored and enforced”.Footnote 27 As enacted in other jurisdictions that have medical assistance in dying, robust procedural safeguards are a critical component of any carefully-designed regime and are essential to prevent error and abuse from occurring and to protect vulnerable persons.

Consistent with the Court ruling and the Special Joint Committee’s recommendations on safeguards, Bill C-14 would enact mandatory procedural safeguards that medical practitioners and nurse practitioners would be required to follow before providing medical assistance in dying to a person. These safeguards would require the medical practitioner or nurse practitioner to: confirm that the person meets all eligibility criteria for medical assistance in dying; ensure that the person’s request was made in writing after the person was informed that his or her natural death was reasonably foreseeable and be satisfied that it was signed and dated in the presence of two independent witnesses; ensure that the person was informed that they may withdraw their request at any time; ensure that a second independent medical practitioner or nurse practitioner provided a written opinion confirming the person’s eligibility; ensure that a period of at least 15 days has elapsed between the moment the written request was signed and the provision of medical assistance in dying (unless both practitioners agree that death or loss of capacity to consent is imminent); and, immediately before providing such assistance, confirm the person’s consent.

In order to be considered independent, the witnesses could not be a beneficiary under the will of that person or otherwise benefit from their death, or be involved directly in giving care to the person, among other criteria (new subsection 241.2(5) - clause 3 of the Bill). With respect to the independence of the first medical practitioner or nurse practitioner from the second one, the Bill provides that they could not be connected to each other in any way that could impair their objectivity, such as by being in a business or mentoring relationship with each other. They would also need to be independent of the patient, in the sense that they could not be a beneficiary under his or her will, or be otherwise connected to them in a manner that could affect their objectivity (new subsection 241.2(6)). However, the legislation makes clear that standard compensation for providing medical services would not affect the physician or nurse practitioner’s independence.

The Bill would make provision for individuals who are unable to sign their own request, by enabling them to ask a capable adult, who is not directly involved in providing health care services to them, to sign and date their request on their behalf and in their presence (new subsection 241.2(4)).

Finally, in order to fall within the exemption, the medical practitioner or nurse practitioner would also be required to act with reasonable knowledge, care and skill, in accordance with applicable provincial laws, rules or standards (new subsection 241.2(7)), and to inform the pharmacist whenever medication is sought or prescribed for the purposes of medical assistance in dying (new subsection 241.2(8)).

VI. Monitoring System

As recognized by the Court in Carter, by the Special Joint Committee’s report, as well as by many stakeholders, a pan-Canadian monitoring system to collect and analyze data on the provision of medical assistance in dying across Canada, to monitor trends and provide information to the public on the implementation of the new law, would be a critical component of the new Canadian regime. Such a monitoring system would be essential to foster transparency and public trust in the system.

Regulation-making Power

The proposed legislation would create a power for the Minister of Health to make regulations to establish a system for monitoring requests for, and the provision of, medical assistance in dying in Canada. Such regulations may include: information to be provided by medical practitioners or nurse practitioners to a designated body; the form, manner and circumstances in which the information has to be provided; details about how the data would be analyzed, interpreted, and reported to the public; and rules for the protection and disposal of such information (new subsection 241.31(3) - clause 4 of the Bill). The Minister of Health would consult with PTs and others in developing the regulations.

Filing Obligations and Related Offences

To enable the monitoring regime to operate effectively, the proposed legislation would also create a legal obligation for medical and nurse practitioners who receive a written request for medical assistance in dying to provide information as prescribed in regulations (new subsection 241.31(1)). Pharmacists would also be required to provide information in relation to their provision of medications used for such assistance (new subsection 241.31(2)). Bill C-14 proposes a hybrid offence - punishable by a maximum of 2 years imprisonment - for failure to comply with the reporting obligations, and for any person who knowingly breaches the regulations. The reporting obligations and related offences would be brought into force at a later date than the rest of the Bill, once the detailed regulations on the monitoring regime would be in place.

VII. Other Offences

To ensure compliance with the new medical assistance in dying legislation, and given the serious and irrevocable nature of helping people die and the potential for criminal liability for medical professionals, the Bill would enact new hybrid offences for failure to comply with the mandatory safeguards (new section 241.3), and for forging or destroying documents related to assistance requests with criminal intent (new section 241.4). For instance, a person might destroy a written medical assistance in dying request in order to block someone’s access to such assistance or to interfere with a medical practitioner’s ability to rely on an exemption, or they might forge the signature of a person they were trying to influence to seek assistance. These offences would be liable to a maximum term of imprisonment of five years, where prosecuted on indictment, and to a maximum term of 18 months on summary conviction.

VIII. Related Amendments

Bill C-14 would enact related amendments to other statutes to ensure that recourse to medical assistance in dying does not affect pensions under the Pension Act or benefits under the Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act. It would also amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act to ensure that no investigation need be conducted under section 19 of that Act as a result of a person dying with medical assistance.

IX. Parliamentary Review

The Bill includes a mandatory legislative review to take place five years after its coming into force. The medical assistance in dying legislation would be referred to a designated parliamentary committee of the House of Commons, the Senate or both Houses of Parliament. The committee would review all provisions of Bill C-14 and submit a report to Parliament. It could also consider any reports that would be published under the monitoring regime. The parliamentary review could assess whether the new regime is meeting its legislatives objectives, how medical assistance in dying is being implemented across Canada, and identify areas of potential changes and improvements, if necessary.

X. Areas for Further Study

The parliamentary review would be a distinct process from the Governement of Canada’s commitment to study additional complex circumstances in which a person may seek access to medical assistance in dying, namely requests by mature minors, advance requests, and requests where mental illness is the sole underlying medical condition. The results of these studies could be considered by the parliamentary committee as part of its broader legislative review of the new regime.