Canada on Euthanasia: The Debate Continues

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The Canadian Government has proposed a bill that would extend the availability of euthanasia to those who are not terminally ill. The bill would allow those with degenerative diseases such as cerebral palsy to undergo assisted dying.

While this marks a significant step forward in granting citizens the right to die, the bill still excludes those with mental illnesses from accessing these services.

This is due to the new system requiring those with non-terminal illnesses to prove that they are subject to “intolerable” suffering.

Are these requirements justified legally and morally? Should non-terminal patients be able to access euthanasia?

It is clear that progress has been made in recent years to allow those with non-terminal illnesses to end their lives. The existing legislation on assisted-dying has already been challenged in high profile court cases.

Previously, an individual had to prove their death was “reasonably foreseeable” as a means of ending their life with medical assistance.

This had to be done before the individual’s condition worsened to the point of loss of autonomy and the ability to legally give consent to the procedure.

Arguably the requirement forced individuals to end their lives before their conditions worsened, robbing them of time.

This was struck down by a 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling, as it was deemed unconstitutional as it infringed on the “life, liberty and security of the person”.

Alterations to the existing legislation highlight the need for a comprehensive revision of the requirements it puts forward. The difficulty that some individuals with tangible, physical illnesses face when seeking euthanasia doesn’t bode well for those with mental illnesses.

In Canada, the case of Adam Maier-Clayton is one of the key features of the debate surrounding euthanasia and mental illness. At twenty-three, he was diagnosed with Somatic Symptom Disorder, a condition in which the brain caused the body severe pain.

Excluded by the 2016 C-14 law which initially legalised euthanasia for terminal illnesses, he campaigned for years for a change in the law.

The exclusion of individuals with mental illness from the right to access euthanasia does represent inequality in the rights of citizens based on the different attitudes surrounding different conditions.

Denying those with mental illnesses access to euthanasia procedures is nothing short of telling someone their suffering is not as valid or severe as someone else’s with a physical illness. Moreover, it condemns them to choose between suicide or suffering, stripping them of their dignity and right to live their lives on their own terms.  

Sadly, this was the reality for Adam and many other sufferers of mental illness. His suicide in April 2017 demonstrated the hopeless position that the law put individuals like him in.

Instead of being allowed to die peacefully around his friends and family, he was forced to end his life alone as the presence of others could have led to their criminal prosecution.

The legislation in its current form entails a cruel exclusion of people who are genuinely suffering from mental conditions which are just as severe as physical illnesses.

While individuals with mental illnesses should be granted the same accessibility to euthanasia procedures as non-terminal and terminal physical illnesses, caution needs to be exercised.

This is due to the need to prevent euthanasia from becoming a desirable option compared to traditional treatments such as medication or therapy.

Euthanasia must be regarded as an option to turn to after all other options have failed. To achieve this goal it is clear that mental health services require increased funding to provide better treatment to their patients. Additionally, more needs to be done to increase awareness and understanding of the struggles those with mental illnesses experience. This would enable friends and family to be just as supportive of a loved one with a mental illness as they could be to one with a physical illness or condition.

It’s clear that the government of Canada has both a moral and legal obligation to extend access to euthanasia to those with non-terminal and mental illnesses. It is immoral to force those suffering from an illness or a condition to seek ways of ending their lives in solitary and undignified ways. Moreover, it is a legal obligation to uphold the “life, liberty, and security of the person” as stated in the Canadian constitution.

While the legal obligation may not apply to the constitutions of other countries, the moral duty to limit the suffering of human beings and respect their rights and freedoms should compel other countries to legalise euthanasia. 

Rayan Striebel

Image: Flickr.