by Shivahn Garvie
In early February, the Canadian government deferred the expansion of medical assistance in dying (MAID) to individuals suffering solely from mental illness by one year (Zimonjic 2023). Justice Minister David Lametti requested a delay for Bill C-39 to further investigate the potential risks of this new legislation (Zimonjic 2023). An interim report released in June 2022 concluded that “more remains to be done to ensure the necessary steps have been taken” before the March 2023 deadline (Zimonjic 2023).
According to the new bill, “mental illness” encompasses psychiatric conditions like depression and personality disorders, and excludes neurodevelopmental or neurocognitive disorders (Zimonjic 2023). Euthanasia was introduced to Canada in 2015 when the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting assisted death stripped citizens of dignity and autonomy (Cheng 2022). Assisted suicide was approved in Canada for individuals 18 and older with terminal illness in 2016, and was extended to those with non-threatening severe and chronic physical conditions in 2021 (Honderich 2023). Since 2016, the number of people receiving medical assistance in dying has increased each year, constituting 3.3% of all deaths in Canada in 2021 (Honderich 2023). The planned expansion to those suffering solely from mental illness has raised concerns about the MAID program as a whole.
Recent reports have indicated that vulnerable individuals are requesting and receiving assisted death due to poverty, loneliness, or lack of housing rather than failing health (Honderich 2023). Some argue that this indicates a crisis of Canada’s social safety net. In May 2022, Marie-Claud Landry, chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, stated that giving people the option of assisted death because the government is, “failing to fulfill their fundamental human rights is unacceptable.” (Honderich 2023).
Bill C-39 attracted further criticism from three United Nations human rights experts in 2021 who warned that the expanded law will denigrate Canada’s disabled community, sending a message that serious disability is worse than death (Cheng 2022). Critics point to the story of Alan Nichols as evidence that MAID lacks sufficient safeguards. Nichols was a 61-year-old Canadian with a history of depression and concurrent mental health issues who was hospitalized in June 2019 following concerns that he was suicidal (Cheng 2022). The next month, Nichols requested euthanasia through MAID and was killed despite objections from his family and nurse practitioner (Cheng 2022). After his death, it was revealed that Nichols’ MAID application listed hearing loss as the reason for his request to die (Cheng 2022). Nichols’ family brought this case to the police, claiming that he had not been suffering unbearably, but was confused as he had been refusing to take necessary medication and wear a cochlear implant that helped him hear (Cheng 2022).
Most of the controversy surrounding this expansion is centered on assessing the “irremediability” of mental illness (Honderich 2023). Individuals only qualify for MAID in Canada if their
condition is considered incurable (Honderich 2023). However, the Canadian Mental Health Association cautions that it is “not possible” to classify any mental illness as irremediable, and thus disapproves of the upcoming expansion (Honderich 2023).
Despite fears from the public and professionals, Mr. Lametti assures that this legislation is not being taken lightly, claiming, “We are listening to what we are hearing and being responsive” (Honderich 2023). The federal government promises that Bill-C-39 will respect individuals’ autonomy but prioritize their safety (Honderich 2023). While the expansion of MAID may intimidate many Canadians, this delay should bolster their faith in the governments’ commitment and responsiveness to its people’s concerns.
Cheng, Maria. “‘Disturbing’: Experts troubled by Canada’s euthanasia laws.” AP International News, Associated Press, 11 August 2022, https://apnews.com/article/covid-science-heaalth-toronto-7c631558a457188d2bd2b5cfd360a867.
France-Presse, Agence. “Canada seeks to delay euthanasia for mentally ill.” SCMP, South China Morning Post, 3 February 2023, https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/3208926/canada-seeks-delay-euthanasia-mentally-ill.
Honderich, Holly. “Who can die? Canada wrestles with euthanasia for the mentally ill.” BBC News, British Broadcasting Corporation, 14 January 2023. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-64004329.
Zimonjic, Peter. “Federal government moves to delay MAID for people suffering solely from mental illness.” CBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2 February 2023. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/maid-delay-solely-mental-illness-1.6734686.