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Canada legalized assisted suicide, but there aren't enough doctors to keep up with demand

In the western province of Alberta, provincial officials are trying to find more doctors willing to offer assisted dying.
Wanda Morris, la présidente de Dying With Dignity, prend dans ses bras David Holgate, le 6 février 2015. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Months after Canada legalized medically-assisted death, one province is seeing such high demand that it is searching for more doctors who are willing to help people end their lives.

Hundreds of people across the country have chosen to die with the help of a physician since it became legal to do so in June. In the western province of Alberta, 29 people have sought the service — 14 in the capital city of Edmonton alone.


And while those numbers might not seem so dramatic, the man in charge of Alberta's assisted dying file says he's shocked by the demand and the department is trying to find more doctors to offer assisted dying.

"I thought what would happen would be is we'd have a bubble of people and then it would settle down. But we're seeing it's not," Dr. James Silvius, the province's lead for medical assistance in dying, told VICE News.

One clinical ethicist in southern Alberta predicts the province will see about 150 medically assisted deaths a year.

Related: Assisted Suicide Is Now Legal in Canada — And One Province Is Providing Free Drugs to Do It

The department has been holding education sessions across Alberta on the topic to make sure more doctors feel comfortable with assisted death as just one more option available at the end of life, like palliative care.

The average age of Albertans receiving assisted death is 67. Most suffered from cancer, multiple sclerosis, or ALS. Another 23 people were denied physician-assisted death, according to the provincial numbers, because they didn't meet the criteria, which includes being mentally fit and having an irremediable illness in which death is imminent.

Silvius added that while assisted dying might have broad support from the general Canadian public, many doctors are hesitant to get on board for a number of reasons including not being familiar with the drugs involved to a moral opposition.


"It's still not normalized yet in our society," he said.

'It's still not normalized yet in our society'

The legislation is also facing backlash from a number of quarters, from medical patients and civil liberties advocates who say the law is far too restrictive, to Catholic bishops who are now denying church funerals to anyone who dies with the help of a doctor.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association is suing the government, arguing that the law, which only allows physician-assisted death for people suffering from terminal physical illnesses whose death is imminent, is unconstitutional and should be repealed.

Conservative groups, meanwhile, call it a violation of human dignity and right-to-life. And they are finding new ways to push back against the practice.

This week, a group of Catholic bishops in Alberta and the Northwest Territories issued guidelines explaining how priests can refuse funerals for people who died with the help of a doctor, saying it's a "grave sin."

According to the guidelines, families who want to host funerals for their loved ones should not be able to hold them in churches.

Related: Assisted suicide is legal in Canada but no one knows how many are choosing to die

Right-to-die have slammed the bishops, calling their stance a "thinly veiled threat" against parishioners who might consider an assisted death.

"It's just appalling," Dying With Dignity Canada CEO Shanaaz Gokool told the Canadian Press.

"You tell people in the most vulnerable time in their lives — people who are frail and who are suffering — that if you want to access your charter right, your human right to an assisted death … then you're going to have to make a choice between relieving your suffering and everything you may have believed in," she said.

The Canadian Medical Association has said its members are content with the assisted dying legislation as it is, and that "things seem to be proceeding relatively well."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne