Analysis

The disturbing details of Canada’s bill to expand assisted suicide

euthanasia, Canada

Tensions are rising in Canada over a bill meant to amend the current law on assisted suicide in the country. Bill C-7, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (medical assistance in dying) is currently in committee in the House of Commons with a court-imposed deadline of December 18 to amend the law. Points of contention focus around the barring of assisted suicide for individuals with mental illness as a sole diagnosis, and the allowance of assisted suicide even for individuals whose death is not “reasonably foreseeable.”

The bill was first introduced in February after the Quebec Superior Court struck down legislation that it deemed restricted access to assisted suicide. After the COVID-19 pandemic brought the government to a crawl, the bill had to be reintroduced in October. It seeks to make multiple changes to the current law, some of which are concerning.

Mental Illness

Bill C-7 would prohibit assisted suicide for those with mental illness as their sole medical diagnosis. Mental illness will “not be considered an illness, disease or disability” under the bill and while individuals who suffer from mental illness applaud this, some psychiatrists are fighting it. MP Sen. Claude Carignan claimed that it would put a “huge burden” on people with mental illness and force them to fight for the right to die.

Allowing assisted suicide solely based on mental illness would mean doctors could be killing patients who aren’t in a stable frame of mind to make the decision to die. Depression and the wish to die are symptoms of mental illness and can cloud a person’s judgment.

Justice Minister David Lametti argued that the trajectory of a mental illness is unclear compared to that of a physical illness. Because suicidal thoughts can be a symptom of mental illness, it is necessary to protect the vulnerable — though Lametti does not believe there is enough time to discuss this fully before the deadline. He also admitted that the exclusion of those with mental illness from assisted suicide is “hopefully temporary.” If he is correct, this would mean that for now, individuals with mental illness in Canada would be protected under Bill C-7 should it become law, but revisions may be in the works that would legalize killing people with mental illness such as depression.

READ: New Canadian report touts government health care cost savings from assisted suicide

Individuals with disabilities

Bill C-7 would also expand assisted suicide to include individuals whose natural death is not “reasonably foreseeable.” The disability rights organization Inclusion Canada points out that this opens the door for individuals with disabilities who are not in danger of dying to be killed through assisted suicide. In 2016, when Canada first legalized assisted suicide, the law included a requirement that a person’s death be “reasonably foreseeable” in order to access assisted suicide. Bill C-7 aims to change that.

“In 2019, the Quebec Superior Court struck down this requirement,” said Inclusion Canada. “The court found that the ‘reasonable foreseeability of natural death’ requirement prevented some people who are suffering, including people with disabilities, from being able to choose when and how they die, even if they do not have a terminal illness. Canada chose not to appeal the decision, leaving many questions unasked and unanswered.”

Bill C-7 would answer those questions as it would “repeal the provision that requires a person’s natural death be reasonably foreseeable in order for them to be eligible for medical assistance in dying.” People with disabilities who are not near death or terminally ill will be able to access assisted suicide simply because they have a disability — intellectual or physical.

“Bill C-7 discriminates against people with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities,” said Inclusion Canada. “It would allow for people with intellectual disabilities to die with medical assistance because they have a disability. They won’t need to have cancer, or heart disease, or otherwise be dying. This is dangerous and wrong.”

Rather than kill healthy people with disabilities, the organization wants to see the government work to improve life for these individuals. However, this bill ensures that people with disabilities can be killed, not because they want to die, but because they are worried about being a burden.

Removing safeguards

The bill also aims to remove safeguards including reducing the number of witnesses present at the signing of the request for suicide to one witness rather than two. A person who provides health care as their primary occupation and who is being paid to provide that care to the person requesting medical assistance in dying would also be allowed to act as that witness unless they are the person who would be administering the substance to cause death.

Bill C-7 would allow hospitals to continue with a person’s assisted suicide if they previously requested it but had since “lost the capacity to consent to receiving medical assistance in dying” and if “the person does not demonstrate, by words, sounds or gestures, refusal to have the substance administered or resistance to its administration…” In the event that the person self-administers the first substance but does not die within the pre-determined time period, the medical or nurse practitioner would be allowed to administer a second substance to kill the person.

READ: Canada releases euthanasia report with troubling implications for persons with disabilities

Government-funded killing

Canada has government-funded health care, and a recent report submitted to the Parliament of Canada applauded the fact that the legalization of assisted suicide had saved the government money on health care costs. It is cheaper to kill people than to help them live, which may be a big reason behind the push to expand access to assisted suicide.

A recent poll found that Canadians are concerned about the expansion of assisted suicide. Religious leaders in Canada are understandably opposed to Bill C-7 and in a letter said they are “inalterably opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide, the intentional killing of human beings, euphemistically being called “Medical Assistance in Dying,” (MAiD) but which is more accurately, and tragically, nothing less than murder.”

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