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Canada Moves to Expand Availability of Euthanasia

FILE - Lee Carter, whose mother, Kay, had challenged Canada's assisted-suicide ban, embraces husband Hollis Johnson while speaking to journalists in Ottawa, Feb. 6, 2015. The MAiD Act was enacted in June 2016 in response to the Carter case and others.

Doctor-assisted suicide has been legally available in Canada since 2016 for individuals whose death is deemed to be “reasonably foreseeable.” Now, a revision of the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) Act making its way through Parliament would make the ultimate solution available to others with debilitating illnesses.

The change was prompted by a court ruling in the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec that found it was unconstitutional to restrict euthanasia to those facing imminent death. The court said that shortcoming must be corrected by no later than December 18.

The current law provides a 10-day waiting period before euthanasia can be administered to someone already near death. The proposed changes would eliminate that provision but add a 90-day waiting period before doctors can assist in the suicide of someone not already facing death.

Dr. Thomas Bouchard is a Calgary, Alberta, physician who has long been opposed to Medical Assistance in Dying. Previously, he was involved with the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians and has signed the “MAiD to Mad Declaration,” which contends that under the proposed legislation, “Medical Assistance in Dying becomes Medically Administered Death."

Longer wait

He says the 90-day waiting period is not nearly long enough. He also says the current legislation is reckless, and he is calling for patients to be offered additional alternatives.

“So, they seem to be in a rush, and there's no need for a rush," he said. "And I think they had a plan for more fulsome discussion with several committees and hearing from stakeholders. But ... this is an absolute rush job. And it's carelessly done. It's poorly written.”

Euthanasia has been a politically charged issue in Canada since the 1990s, when Sue Rodriguez, who was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, took her fight for a doctor-assisted death all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. She lost in a landmark 5-4 decision that was overturned in 2016 to allow terminally ill people to seek medical assistance in ending their lives.

Her close friend and one of Canada’s strongest advocates for medical assistance in dying is former Member of Parliament Svend Robinson. In February 1994, he helped Rodriguez find a doctor and was with her when she died with medical assistance. He has not disclosed the name of that doctor and did not face criminal charges.

Imperfect, but a key step

He says objections like Bouchard’s are nothing new. Robinson, who served in the House of Commons for 25 years, argues the proposed legislation may not be perfect, but it is an important step in the right direction.

“Those groups have fought us every step of the way. They will continue to fight," he said. "And I just I wish they would recognize that no one, no one is forcing any of them to make this decision.

"But for them to tell people like Sue that they don't have the right to make this decision for themselves — I just think that's fundamentally wrong and misguided, and so that opposition will continue, but the government should move forward."

Rodriguez’s lawyer, Chris Considine, has advocated for euthanasia for nearly three decades. He does not call the new legislation reckless but agrees with Bouchard that there first needs to be a full debate in Parliament. In particular, he would like to see stronger provisions on counseling about alternatives for people who are depressed or suffering from disabilities.

He said he was concerned because he wasn't sure there were enough resources available to help people with disabilities "make alternative decisions, have alternative procedures put in place if they're depressed, et cetera, so they don't necessarily feel they have to take this particular route.” He said some people with disabilities had expressed similar misgivings about the legislation.

The new legislation has most recently been sent from a committee of Canada’s Senate back down to the House of Commons for further debate. But with the Quebec court’s December 18 deadline fast approaching, there is little time left to improve the bill.