Federal government tables assisted dying law

The Federal Government today tabled legislation that would give some Canadians the right to choose an assisted death.

While the bill adopts some of the important provisions that the BC Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, the BC Civil Liberties Association and other advocates of choice in dying have called for, the government took a more narrow approach to the issue.

Following the BCHA's recommendations, the bill:

  • Allows for medically assisted deaths to be administered by a doctor or prescribed by a pharmacist for self-administration
  • Requires two independent medical practitioners agree that a person is qualified
  • Requires requests be made in writing by the patient or a representative if the patient is unable to
  • Recognizes physical and psychological suffering

Yet the bill still fails to live up to what was laid out by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Carter decision. In particular, by limiting the criteria for an assisted death to those who "are in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability" and whose "natural death has become reasonably foreseeable."

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:

This is a huge step forward for Canada toward a compassionate regime that respects individual autonomy and choice. However the bill falls short on several fronts and leaves too many suffering Canadians without any options.

Restricting access to those whose natural death is "reasonably foreseeable" is political doublespeak for terminal illness and a direct affront to the plaintiffs in Carter and other Canadians facing endless suffering. The Supreme Court explicitly did not impose such a restriction and such language will almost certainly open the government to another Supreme Court challenge. Further, there is no provision to enable Canadians facing a diagnosis of dementia to give advanced consent for an assisted death. There are also mandatory cooling off periods and the imposition of an arbitrary age restriction. These sections ought to be sent back the the drawing board.

The bill is also silent on whether publicly funded healthcare institutions will have to uphold the Charter rights of Canadians, as recommended by the Special Joint Committee. In BC alone, $1 billion goes to hospitals that take orders from religious hierarchies. Many of those, like the Catholic Bishops who oversee Providence Healthcare in Vancouver, are steadfast in their refusal to allow Canadians this choice.

We will continue to press Ottawa and Victoria to uphold choice for all Canadians.

Josh Patterson, Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA):

While the legislation permits assisted dying for adults suffering from physical illnesses, and does not include some of the worst ideas recommended by opponents of assisted dying like requiring prior judicial approval - it leaves out entire categories of suffering Canadians who should have a right to choose a safe and dignified assisted death. The inevitable result is that people will be trapped in intolerable suffering, or be left with no choice but to take their own lives prematurely in potentially dangerous situations.

People's Charter rights don't depend on opinion polls. The Prime Minister himself has said repeatedly that the Charter of Rights is central to their vision of governing of this country. In our opinion, by excluding people who are suffering intolerably on account of a mental illness, by excluding mature minors, and by refusing to respect advance requests this legislation plainly violates the Charter rights of suffering Canadians. The result will be profound and unimaginable suffering for patients who are left out.

The government's duty goes beyond just sticking to what the Supreme Court said in the Carter case - they have to uphold the Charter rights of all Canadians when they pass legislation. It is deeply disappointing that the federal government has decided to exclude people from this medical treatment in an arbitrary and discriminatory way, despite the recommendation of the all-party committee of MPs and Senators that people with mental illnesses and mature minors must be included.

Read the complete response from the BCCLA and their blog.

Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada:

These harsh, discriminatory rules fly in the face of that expectation and will create unfair barriers to access to medical aid in dying. We expected better.

These rules could force thousands of Canadians with excruciating chronic illnesses to suffer against their will for years or even decades. Our hearts go out to these individuals and their families.

Without the option of advance consent, Canadians with devastating conditions who want to exercise their right to physician-assisted dying may face a bleak choice: end their lives too early, while they are still competent; or risk waiting until it’s too late.

Read the response from Dying With Dignity Canada.

Andre Picard in The Globe and Mail:

Fifteen months and two governments later, the much-avoided and then cobbled-together-at-the-last-minute assignment has been handed in.

The best that can be said about Bill C-14 (medical assistance in dying) is that it deserves to be graded “incomplete” in fat red marker.

Read the full text of the bill.

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