Medical assistance in dying becomes legal in Canada

As of today, suffering Canadians may request assistance to end their life with dignity.

Last year, in its unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down our country's prohibition on physician-assisted dying and spelled out clear and compassionate guidelines for when an individual may request an assisted death.

The Court delayed its ruling to give Parliament time to enact a new law meeting those guidelines. Parliament's answer is Bill C-14, which is only now being considered by the Senate. That Bill is considered by many experts to be unconstitutional.

This means that the Court's ruling stands as law and any individual that meets the criteria provided by the Court has choice in death.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association

This is a historic day for compassion, dignity and choice in Canada. The era of suffering as a noble ideal is over. Canadians now have significantly greater personal autonomy over their end of life choices.

This has only happened because of the courage and resilience of individuals like Sue Rodriguez, Gloria Taylor, Kay Carter, Elayne Shapray and their families and supporters - as well as through the activism of groups like the BC Civil Liberties Association and Dying With Dignity Canada. Their fight is part of the broader push, that the BC Humanists are a part of, against traditional moral absolutism and toward a more humanist ethics based on human dignity, personal autonomy and social justice.

Despite the government's fear mongering, there is no legal vacuum. Every province has provided clear guidelines for physicians to ensure that individuals have the choice to die with dignity. And as we saw following the fight against Canada's unjust anti-abortion laws, we will again recognize that these personal decisions do not belong in the legal realm but should correctly take place between a patient and their medical team.

Should Bill C-14 clear the Senate, it must only do so with amendments to make Canada a world leader in upholding dignity and choice.

In British Columbia, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC has issued guidelines for doctors in the province to provide medical assistance in dying. It provides for conscientious objections but requires physicians "to provide an effective transfer of care for their patients." BC Health Minister Terry Lake and Attorney General Suzanne Anton today amended regulations "to give the college's recently released standards the weight of law."

While the Supreme Court's ruling doesn't refer to pharmacists or nurses, both colleges have issued guidelines for their members. The College of Pharmacists of BC says "for pharmacists, the risk [of criminal prosecution for participating in medical assistance in death] is small." The College of Registered Nurses of BC is more cautious and encourages nurses to refer discussions about MAID to the patient's physician and to seek legal counsel.

Bill C-14 is currently in the committee stage at the Senate. The BC Humanist Association this morning wrote to members of that committee to urge them to amend the bill to restore a patient-centred approach. Use Dying With Dignity Canada's tool to send your own email to your Senators.

Image credit: BC Civil Liberties Association, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.5

Dear Members of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs

Our organization speaks for the increasing number of British Columbians and Canadians who do not subscribe to or practice a particular religion or faith. In general these individuals uphold the importance of personal autonomy and human dignity. This can be seen in opinion surveys like one from Ipsos Reid which in 2014 found that 95% of the non-religious support physician-assisted dying[1]. This importance of personal autonomy was recognized in the unanimous Carter decision and in the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying's final report.

We do not believe that Bill C-14, in its current form, recognizes the importance of personal autonomy. Instead it arbitrarily restricts eligibility for medical assistance in death (MAID) to fewer Canadians. Further, we assert that proposed so-called conscientious objection clauses actually endanger access to MAID. Already, publicly-funded healthcare institutions (in every case operated by a religious body) across the country have stated that they will refuse a patient's request to die while in their facility. In many communities, these religious hospitals, hospices and healthcare facilities are the sole provider.

For these reasons, we submitted a brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights recommending specific amendments to Bill C-14. These amendments are necessary to ensure the bill meets the Carter decision and to uphold the values of autonomy and dignity. As MPs rejected these recommendations, I am forwarding them to you to provide a sober second look at this bill.

Today is the first day that medical assistance in death is accessible and available to Canadians across the country. We are already seeing medical colleges provide clear and responsible guidelines and provincial governments adopt those with the force of law. There is no urgency in pushing this bill through - though passing it to law will clarify protections for pharmacists and other individuals assisting a primary care physician in MAID.

We hope you will consider our recommendations and ensure that the final bill reflects the values of compassion, dignity and choice espoused by the Carter decision.


Ian Bushfield
Executive Director
BC Humanist Association

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