Human dignity across the lifespan

Research and innovation
Faculty of Law - Civil Law Section

By Martine Batanian

Title, Organization

Michelle Giroux
Photo: Bonnie Findley
Driven by a keen sense of justice, Michelle Giroux contributes to legal reforms by addressing new realities facing families and the health sector.

If the legal system doesn’t reflect our new realities, it is ineffective and we should ask what purpose it serves,” says Michelle Giroux, a professor in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law. Currently celebrating her 25th year at the University of Ottawa, Giroux has lost none of the fieriness that marked her early days as a legal intern defending our most vulnerable citizens’ right to legal aid. In her view, dignity, liberty and equality form the central pillars of her research into individuals’ rights to know their origins and to access end-of-life care.

“I am interested in developing legal solutions to address issues raised by changes affecting medicine and the contemporary family,” explains Giroux, who specializes in bioethics and individual and family rights. “There are no easy answers to these questions. These are highly sensitive areas in which the law often lags behind social changes.”

As a trailblazer in the area of end-of-life care, Michelle Giroux was invited in 2013 to attend a meeting of the committee of legal experts seeking to implement the recommendations of the Quebec National Assembly’s special committee on the issue of dying with dignity. “Initially, doctors were calling for a debate on the question because they were facing a shortage of end-of-life solutions.” The committee justified medical aid for dying due to changes in medical treatments, which sometimes extend life unduly, in addition to issues of fundamental rights. Quebec’s legislation was adopted in 2014 prior to the Carter case decision, in which the Supreme Court of Canada decriminalized medical aid for dying across the country.

Among other initiatives, Giroux is currently working on a multidisciplinary study on the impact of Quebec’s new advance medical directives, in collaboration with Isabelle Marcoux, a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa. Stemming from end-of-life legislation, advance directives are a way of expressing one’s wish to consent to binding care, in anticipation of incapacity. “The intent of this legislation is to foster patients’ autonomy. In my view, the interesting thing is to determine whether the advance medical directives, as currently defined in the law, actually do that.” In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (see sidebar at right), will we see a rise in the popularity of advance directives? “Advance medical directives may be a step in the right direction,” says Giroux. “This pandemic, during which caregivers and representatives could not be at patients’ bedsides, has demonstrated this.”

New family configurations

Children’s rights are dear to Michelle Giroux. After focusing on children’s rights to know their origins and to establish their parentage in cases of surrogate motherhood or assisted reproduction, she is now delving into the question of how children construct their identities, thanks to a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council partnership grant on separated and blended families. “Identity may be one way of establishing a new basis of family law,” she explains. “Families are evolving very quickly. Family models are eclectic and the law is at odds with them.”

Public health and the pandemic

“Quebec’s Public Health Program […] clearly outlines that the most vulnerable populations should be at the centre of our concerns. Doesn’t the current health crisis demonstrate that we need to do more to fulfill our broader public health mission?” asks Michelle Giroux in a chapter of Vulnerable: The Law, Policy and Ethics of COVID-19, published in July 2020 by the University of Ottawa Press. In her essay, she addresses the implementation of Quebec’s Public Health Act amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “The problems that existed prior to COVID-19 are being exacerbated by the pandemic, and the situation in residential and long-term care centres (CHSLD) is an unfortunate example of that,” she notes. “After COVID-19, will we also have to deal with another crisis associated with an ‘epidemic of social problems’ that will have an equal impact on human dignity?” Only time will tell…

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