A law allowing limited euthanasia in Canada is set to expand to make the procedure available to people with mental illness. As Craig McCulloch reports, this is causing a variety of reactions.
Canada’s law permitting euthanasia, or Medical Assistance in Dying, became personal for Vancouver-area resident Marcia McNaughton in November. Suffering from metastasized stomach cancer, her 80-year-old aunt Ella Tikenheinrich chose to end her life with medical assistance.
McNaughton was not aware of her aunt’s choice until almost the end, and the extended family supported it.
“As a family, all we did was support her and love her decision,” McNaughton said. “And I have to say one thing — to be in control of your own time, it is an amazing thing.”
On March 17, the law permitting what is termed Medical Assistance in Dying — commonly called MAiD — will expand to include those suffering from mental illness. Currently, only individuals whose death is deemed to be reasonably foreseeable or who suffer from a debilitating illness, like McNaughton’s aunt, qualify to get medical assistance to end their life.
Ottawa-based Canadian Physicians for Life has always been strongly opposed to any form of legalized euthanasia.
Executive Director Nicole Scheidl said it is an abdication of responsibility of the government and doctors to offer death as a solution instead of treatment. She feels the coming changes allow for a doctor to decide who gets medical assistance to die and who gets suicide prevention.
“That goes to the very heart of what the physician thinks — the quality of life of the person in front of them,” Scheidl said. “And clearly, that’s not a decision that should ever fall to a doctor. As well, people who are suicidal don’t clearly see that they need suicide prevention. They all want suicide assistance.”
Victoria-based lawyer Chris Considine has been at the forefront of strongly advocating for euthanasia going back three decades. In the early 1990s, he represented Sue Rodriguez, who was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, taking her fight for a doctor-assisted death all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Although they lost that case on a 5 to 4 vote, the decision was overturned in 2016. Rodriguez got a doctor-assisted death from an unnamed person in February 1994.
Considine still supports medically assisted suicide but says unlike a terminal illness such as ALS or cancer, issues involving mental health are not as clear cut.
He said there has been a dramatic increase in mental health illnesses, but not treatment.
“In addition, there are underlying causes for mental health which are not strictly organic,” Considine said. “There may be depression caused by poor housing, poor job prospects and other issues, which will drive people into a deep depression. Those issues could be solved, and therefore, there may not really be a need for MAiD.”
Considine said if the March date for expanding the euthanasia law is not pushed back, he hopes strict guidelines are put in place so it does not become a substitute for housing, health care and other forms of social assistance.