Canada’s government is looking to put the brakes on a planned change to its already permissive euthanasia laws. If passed, those who suffer mental illness would be eligible to request the procedure.
Justice Minister David Lametti (Liberal Party of Canada) argues more time is needed for adequate safeguards to be set up. On Thursday, February 2nd, he introduced a bill in parliament through which he hopes to secure a one-year extension to March 17th, 2024.
According to the minister, the new deadline will allow ongoing studies of the risks of extending the service—known by the acronym MAID (the euphemistic ‘Medical Assistance In Dying’)—to the mentally ill to be completed. “The safety of Canadians just comes first,” Lametti commented.
“It is clear more time is needed to get this right,” Lametti went on, citing the importance of moving forward “on this sensitive and complex issue in a prudent and measured way.”
Conservative MP Michael Cooper, however, called for MAID’s latest “dangerous” expansion to be “scrapped,” since experts “are clear that irremediability cannot be determined for mental illness.”
A written statement, published soon after and signed by Cooper and Official Opposition Shadow Minister for Atlantic Canada Rob Moore, said that
Conservatives do not believe that MAID is an acceptable solution to mental illness and psychological suffering. Our healthcare system should help people find the hope they need to live, not assist their deaths.
Canada first approved doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill in 2016, after the Supreme Court of Canada had struck down a ban on the practice, and demanded a new law be drawn up. In 2019, the same court struck the law down because it was limited to citizens whose deaths were “reasonably foreseeable.”
The Canadian government acquiesced in March 2021 when Bill C-7, removing that requirement, passed Parliament. Adults with serious and chronic physical conditions which were not life-threatening could now apply for assisted suicide. While the legislation in theory extended the right to MAID to cases involving only mental illness, it put in the proviso actual implementation could not start before March 2023.
According to the latest government figures, since 2016 more than 30,000 Canadians have called upon the state to see to their end. Every year sees a precipitous climb, with over 10,000 such cases in 2021 alone—an increase of about a third from the previous year.
While opinion polls consistently show that most Canadians support access to assisted suicide, detractors have not shirked from addressing the Canadian system’s darker aspects.
An in-depth 2022 article by Associated Press, while citing experts and recent troubling cases, also examined in which areas Canada’s system differs from other nations which have permissive euthanasia laws.
While countries like Belgium and the Netherlands forbid doctors from bringing up euthanasia with patients, fearing this might unduly influence the patient, the Canadian association of health professionals encourages doctors to discuss euthanasia with their patients as a possible “clinical care option.”
Also unlike Belgium and the Netherlands, Canadian patients do not need to exhaust all medical options before choosing euthanasia which, as some have argued, has led to excesses.
One such (high-profile) case is Alan Nichols. Fearing he was suicidal, medical professionals decided to hospitalize the 61-year-old Canadian in June 2019. While Nichols tried to get his brother to get him out, less than a month later he was euthanized—his loss of hearing (easily remedied by a hearing aid he refused to wear) was deemed sufficient for his request to be granted. His family and one nurse employed by the hospital had been vocal in protesting the decision. Nichols’ family reported the hospital to police, arguing that hospital staff had improperly influenced his decision to request euthanasia.
More recently, in August last year, a VAC (Veteran Affairs Canada) worker suggested euthanasia to a combat veteran who was in treatment for PTSD. The issue had never been raised by the veteran, who was left perturbed by the episode.
Among the experts cited in the AP article is Tim Stainton, director of the Canadian Institute for Inclusion and Citizenship at the University of British Columbia, who said the country’s euthanasia laws were, “probably the biggest existential threat to disabled people since the Nazis’ program in Germany in the 1930s.”
Equally troubled by the direction Canada was heading, in 2021 three UN human rights experts wrote that Canada’s euthanasia law violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The law, they said, had a “discriminatory impact” on disabled people.