A study published in the December 2022 issue of the American Journal of Transplantation finds Canada leading the world in harvesting organs from those who received medical assistance in dying.
The study found that in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, a total of 286 people who sought euthanasia provided organs to save the lives of 837 people. Almost half of those donors, 136, came from Canada.
Patients who choose a medically assisted death due to suffering from cancer cannot be organ donors, due to the medications that are usually taken. Usable donors were suffering from diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis.
Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, is pleased with the findings of the report.
“I was rather proud to learn that Canadian patients who receive medical assistance in dying have been given the opportunity to make something morally significant out of their death, by opting to give life through their organs to other patients,”‘ he said.
Nicole Scheidl, executive director of Ottawa-based Physicians for Life, had a very different reaction.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I also think that it really undermines the organ donation framework in this country.”
A longtime opponent of any form of euthanasia, Scheidl said it reminds her of suspected organ harvesting of executed prisoners in places such as the People’s Republic of China.
“I think people are concerned,” she said. “I know transplant teams would want to make sure that individuals who were euthanized were not coerced.”
Scheidl added that more questions should be asked about euthanasia in Canada. She said there is not enough oversight or data collection, and it is being expanded too fast.
Victoria-based lawyer Chris Considine represented Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and made world headlines in the early 1990s for seeking a medically assisted death, which was rejected at the time by Canada’s Supreme Court.
He said the use of organs from patients who received medical assistance in dying, also known as MAID, is something he thought about back then.
“I knew that it would take 20 years for the law to change,” he said. “And that society would then gradually adapt the law to its needs and based on the experiences that Canadians had and the physicians had with MAID.”
Schafer said that, in the future, committees that approve medical assistance in dying should be required to notify organizations that counsel patients about organ donation.
“There shouldn’t be any conflict of interest,” said Schafer. “There shouldn’t be even a hint or a suggestion that maybe a patient was hustled into requesting MAID, or obtaining MAID earlier than they would themselves wish to do, because the doctors are eager to snatch their organs.”
MAID has been legal in Canada since 2016. The Canadian government is expected to delay a planned expansion of the law that would make euthanasia available to those with severe mental health issues.