In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada decreed that the law prohibiting assisted suicide should be amended to allow physicians to kill their patients under certain circumstances.
In doing so, the Court dismissed any concerns about how this law could be a slippery slope by airily stating, “Whereas robust safeguards, reflecting the irrevocable nature of ending a life, are essential to prevent errors and abuse in the provision of medical assistance in dying…”
So what safeguards were written into the law? Not many. In fact, the federal law on assisted suicide, which passed in June 2016 by the majority Liberal government, was a permissive law that has resulted, as of December 31 2018, in 7949 assisted deaths in Canada. The number of assisted deaths increased by more than 184.5% in 2018 from 2794 reported in 2017.
As if this permissive law was not bad enough, a single judge on the lower court in Quebec, Madam Justice Christine Baudouin, of the Quebec Superior Court, on September 11 2019, struck down even a marginal safeguard in the federal and Quebec legislation. This provision stated that a patient’s natural death had to be “reasonably foreseeable”. According to Judge Baudouin, denying patients who are not terminally ill assisted dying was “forcing them to endure harsh, physical and psychological suffering.”
Dr. Michel Racicot, who represents the Collective of Physicians against Euthanasia in Quebec, had a different opinion. He stated the deletion of the provision that the patient’s natural death had to be “reasonably foreseeable” was ominous: “If we remove this criterion [to be terminally ill], we do not transform medical aid in dying into help for the dying person; rather, it becomes almost death on demand for people who are suffering, but who may still have a long life ahead of them.”
Unfortunately, the deletion of this safeguard means that people with disabilities or chronic illness, who are not dying or near the end of life, may now be considered eligible for euthanasia and assisted suicide. In effect, this provision removed by Judge Baudouin served at least as a limited safeguard for vulnerable individuals, such as those with intellectual disability, mental health disability or the vulnerable aged, who can now be easily coerced by individuals or circumstances into assisted dying. Powerful negative stereotypes already abound, that such people are a burden to their families or even to society at large, and that their death would be beneficial to all. The decision by Judge Baudouin feeds into this stereotype. She also failed to question why pain management was inadequate in this case or whether palliative care was offered as an option. Apparently, death was the only choice.
It is frequently not the disability itself that is the problem, but rather the lack of support, which would enable disabled people to live independently and flourish. This would be less expensive than institutional care, but is not being provided.
In other words, in all too many instances, the disability is not the problem but rather the policies that favour institutional care over the patients’ desire for community based services to give them human dignity and choice in living out their lives.
There are already many accounts, in Canada, of people with disabilities choosing death because they are not able to receive adequate care and support. Unfortunately, too, it is not only undue influence by physicians that is of concern, but also that of family members. Elder abuse is a real and burgeoning problem in Canada.
Even though the Quebec lower court decision did not apply to the rest of Canada, this did not prevent Alan Nicholas, a physically healthy man in British Columbia from being euthanized based solely on his being depressed. Mental illness, such as depression, requires medical treatment, not the killing of the patient.
The effect of the removal of the safeguard that patients receiving assisted suicide be terminally ill has dramatically changed the intent of the law and has alarming implications for Canadians.
It is unreasonable in a democracy that a single judge in a lower court should single-handedly change this all-important law on assisted suicide in the absence of careful and substantial debate by Canadians.
The six month deadline granted by the judge to amend the legislation will expire in March 2020. This is far too limited a time to provide for an adequate debate.
In a televised leaders’ debate on French TV Network TVA, Prime Minister Trudeau stated he would not appeal the Quebec court decision, but would craft a more permissive regime in the six months allotted by the court.
By not appealing this Quebec court decision, the Liberals, in fact, arbitrarily decided to expand the scope of Canada’s euthanasia law. Mr. Scheer stated, during that same debate, that if he were elected prime minister, he would appeal the court decision and craft a revised law (hopefully to tighten its provisions). However, the time for the appeal expired on October 11, 2019.
After the federal election, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that one of his first priorities when Parliament resumes sitting on December 5, 2019 will be to amend the physician-assisted suicide law. Recent data from Quebec indicates that there were 1331 euthanasia deaths between April 1, 2018 – March 31, 2019. The data also indicates that 13 of the deaths did not fulfill the qualifications of the law, including three euthanasia deaths for hip fractures.
In 95% of countries around the world and in 45 U.S. states, assisted suicide and euthanasia remain prohibited. Because of concerns about abuse, Finland, Guernsey, and Portugal have recently rejected such schemes. Indeed, in the previous year, 26 of the states in the U.S.A. did likewise.
There is no reason why Canada should be on a death march ordered by Trudeau to loosen the law on assisted suicide.