Assisted dying legislation likely to face challenges
Published Thursday, April 14, 2016 8:46AM CST Last Updated Thursday, April 14, 2016 6:01PM CST
It's another step towards giving seriously ill or dying Canadians a choice to have medical assistance in dying.
Responding to a Supreme Court decision, the federal government tabled its long-awaited bill which outlines the rules and conditions of a medically-assisted death for patients, their families and health professionals.
The legislation still needs to be passed before it becomes law.
"We believe that this legislation is the best approach to ensure that dying patients who are suffering unbearable pain have the choice of a peaceful death and that the vulnerable are protected,” said federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould in Ottawa.
The new legislation indicates there should be a choice for "adults suffering intolerably" or whose death is "reasonably foreseeable."
To qualify, a person must be mentally competent and at least 18-years-old.
People must be living with a serious or incurable illness, disease or disability and be in advanced state of irreversible decline in capability.
A request in writing must be made by the patient, or a designated person if the patient cannot write, and would have to be signed by two independent witnesses.
Two independent physicians or authorized nurse practitioners would evaluate the request.
There would also be a mandatory period of 15 days of reflection.
Patients would be able to withdraw their request at any time.
Arthur Schafer, the founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, said the proposed legislation may be challenged in court because it’s too restrictive.
"The government's made a good first step, but it's been somewhat timid and the restrictions it's imposed are somewhat rigid and inflexible," said Schafer.
He said restrictions Canadians may take exception with imposing the two-week reflection period and the government’s exclusion of people under 18.
"That isn't going to stand up. It feels like age discrimination," said Schafer.
He said the new law also wouldn't allow for advance requests for a medically-assisted death for people developing Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
Wendy Schettler, the CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba, said that's an important safeguard.
"This is a very vulnerable population,” said Schettler. “I think it does take people into consideration that way."
The federal government has proposed to appoint independent bodies to study the issues around minors and people living with mental illness who want a medically-assisted death.
In an emailed statement, Cheri Frazer with the Winnipeg chapter of the group Dying With Dignity, said she’s disappointed with the legislation.
“There are several members of our chapter who are considering applying for physician-assisted death before June who may not be eligible if this is passed, since their deaths could be years away yet,” said Frazer. “They’re suffering terribly already.”
Gordon Bowness’ 89-year-old mother Jess refused treatment at Grace Hospital and died in March. She lived with diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and was diagnosed with breast cancer before her death.
In her obituary, her family urged legislators to act soon on right-to-die legislation.
In an email from Toronto, Gordon said his first impression is that the bill is too restrictive.
“Why aren’t people afforded the peace of mind from being able to write out their wishes ahead of time?” said Bowness. “Often it’s too late once a medical emergency has occurred or a crisis point reached to have the necessary conversations that are so critical to families dealing with such a complicated decision.”
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has already assembled a clinical team made up of three doctors, two nurses, two pharmacists and two social workers to respond to requests for medically-assisted death.
"So it's a very thorough, very exhaustive kind of review that's done before a decision can be made, that this is a patient that's eligible," said the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brock Wright.
Wright said the WRHA will be prepared if the laws are passed.
The Supreme Court gave the government a June 6 deadline to have the law in place.
Until the law is passed, patients living outside Quebec must first get court approval before they can be granted permission to die with medical assistance.