Canada moves to broaden assisted dying law

The Canadian government has proposed changing the law on assisted dying to extend access for those who are not terminally ill.

Unlike some states in the USA and Australia, under Canada’s current 2016 law, the right to request an assisted death is not restricted to those with a life expectancy of 6 months or less. Instead, adults who are of sound mind can voluntarily request assistance to die if they suffer from a grievous and irreversible condition – provided their death is ‘reasonably foreseeable’.

Some Canadian assisted dying providers are now interpreting these criteria to include those in early-stage dementia, while the person still has mental capacity. This is similar to the approach taken in Switzerland by organisations such as Dignitas and Lifecircle.

Last year the Quebec Superior Court found the requirement of a ‘reasonably foreseeable death’ discriminated against those who are incurably suffering, but not from an illness that will cause death. The Government has now proposed changes to enable those who are incurably suffering the right to request an assisted death as well, without the need for their death to be ‘reasonably foreseeable’. This would be likely to include people with complaints similar to UK campaigners Debbie Purdy, Omid, Paul Lamb and Tony Nicklinson.

The proposed law would not, however, extend to cases where someone was purely suffering from a mental illness.

The Bill also proposes a ‘waiver of final consent for eligible persons whose natural death is reasonably foreseeable and who may lose capacity to consent before MAID can be provided’. (MAID – Medical Aid in Dying, is the term used in Canada to refer to Assisted Dying.) This waiver is important as some people require such strong medication to relieve their pain as they approach death, that they lose their mental capacity as a side-effect of the medication. The current Canadian law requires them to obtain MAID, if they request it, without this level of medication, which means they have to end their life sooner than they might wish. In situations like these it seems much more reasonable for people to be able to pass all the safeguarding checks before they lose capacity due to requiring high levels of medication. This waiver may also apply to those with dementia. (See this article for further discussion of assisted dying and dementia.)

Phil Cheatle, MDMD’s Lead Campaign Commentator said:

‘This is another very welcome development from Canada. The Canadian government is rightly considering modifying its assisted dying legislation to overcome some limitations. They are attempting to carefully protect vulnerable people while at the same time providing access to an assisted death for those who want to use it when this is the only way to end their suffering. Canada should now be seen as the country to watch as an excellent example of well-considered assisted dying legislation.’

‘Those who oppose this sort of careful, evidenced-based approach are forcing many to suffer against their will at the end of their lives, or to take drastic, unregulated and possibly illegal action themselves. This is totally unacceptable in a caring, compassionate society.’

MDMD is delighted that Dr. Stefanie Green, one of Canada’s leading MAID providers and the President of the Canadian Association of MAiD Assessors and Providers, will be giving a lecture hosted by MDMD and FATE in London in April 2020. Further information and tickets are available here.