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Canada Has Unveiled Its Plan to Let Sick People Die by Physician-Assisted Suicide

"It was not a question of whether we were going to move forward with medical-assisted dying, it was a question of how," Canada's justice minister said on Thursday.

by Justin Ling
Apr 14 2016, 3:30pm

The Canadian Press

The government of Canada has unveiled how it intends to legalize voluntary euthanasia.

The legislation is a huge legal shift for Canada, and leaves questions as to who, exactly, is eligible under proposed criteria that demands an impending death be "reasonably foreseeable". It was also met with criticism from groups who felt it did not go far enough.

Before the election of Justin Trudeau's Liberal government, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the existing criminal prohibitions on physician-assisted suicide, and gave the government additional time to develop new laws.

If adopted, the law will allow a mentally competent adult who is over the age of 18, who has a "serious and incurable illness, disease or disability," and who has given voluntary consent, to obtain medical assistance in dying. It would also mean that physicians, nurse practitioners and those who help them can provide that assistance, without risk of criminal prosecution.

What isn't covered by this new law is those under 18 years old — so-called 'mature minors' — those suffering from certain debilitating mental illnesses, or those who have given advance permission for the euthanasia. Government officials say those issues will be studied by a panel of experts in the near future. In the meantime, those individuals will not be permitted to obtain doctor-assisted suicide.

'It was not a question of whether we were going to move forward with medical-assisted dying, it was a question of how.'

At a press conference on Thursday in Ottawa, Justice Minister Jodi Wilson-Raybould acknowledged that for some, the legislation will be "troubling."

"For others, it won't go far enough," she said.

"It was not a question of whether we were going to move forward with medical-assisted dying, it was a question of how."

"This approach allows competent adults to apply for a peaceful death instead of the prolonged, frightening, undignified deaths that they may otherwise face," she said.

In the Supreme Court decision, no consideration was given as to whether the "grievous and irremediable illness," as the court called it, needs to be terminal. The government's legislation stipulates that death from the disease must be "reasonably foreseeable" and must be stemming from natural causes.

The advocacy group called Dying with Dignity issued a press release that condemned the restrictions proposed by the government, and said it risks depriving Canadians with dementia and "other catastrophic chronic conditions" access to a death of their choosing.

"Without the option of advance consent, Canadians with devastating conditions who want to exercise their right to physician-assisted dying may face a bleak choice: end their lives too early, while they are still competent; or risk waiting until it's too late," Gokool said.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association also criticized the legislation, in particular that it does not extend to mature minors or people suffering from a mental illness. It said that restricting access to those whose death is "reasonably foreseeable" would leave a whole swath of the population out. And it said that the Supreme Court never stipulated that the patient should have a terminal illness, noting that the person who led the legal challenge to the highest court suffered from spinal stenosis, and was not going to die from that illness.

Related: Quebec Doctor Administers First Legal Assisted Death in Canada

The new legislation, much like the laws that were struck down by the court, largely cover the criminal law realm — leaving the provinces, which administer health care, and doctor associations to fill in many of the blanks.

The new legislation will clearly forbid 'suicide tourism.' It stipulates that the person who applies to receive euthanasia must be eligible for healthcare in Canada — essentially disqualifying anyone who isn't a citizen or permanent resident of Canada.

According to a report in the Globe and Mail this week, the Liberal government will allow its members to vote freely on the contentious issue, that has already prompted loud opposition from the Catholic church in Canada, and led a spate of individuals to obtain court approval to end their lives before the legislation is officially adopted.