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Is human life expendable?

By Angelos Kyriakedes

This is the fundamental question behind Canada’s Medical assistance in dying (MAID) laws and its attempted revisions under Bill C-7 this October.  Bill C-14 originally became law in 2016 and made it legal for people with “reasonably foreseeable” deaths to receive assistance in dying from a physician. Along with this clause, the legislation included a number of other safeguards, or restrictions, meant to narrow down those who would qualify. Among them was a ten-day reflection period wherein the person seeking could change their mind.

Now, after a 2019 Quebec Superior Court Judge ruled that the “reasonably foreseeable” safeguard contradicted the Canadian Charter, the government has been forced to introduce Bill C-7 with a new set of criteria that swings the door much farther open. Justin Trudeau could have challenged the Quebec ruling, but his failure to do so meant that the Criminal Code had to be amended once more. If this bill does not pass by December 18 of this year, it means that Canada would have dual legislation – one system that applies to Quebec, the other for the rest of our country.

Bill C-7 says that those who suffer solely from mental illness will not be able to qualify, but critics aren’t so sure. Despite reassurance, the original legislation is somewhat vague and says that those experiencing “physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to them and that cannot be relieved under conditions that they consider acceptable” are eligible for euthanasia. But by dropping the “reasonably foreseeable” clause, it’s hard to see why “psychological suffering” will not inevitably apply to the mentally ill as well. The Quebec Superior Court overruled the terminal illness safeguard because it said it discriminated against those who were suffering but whose condition was not terminal. Those with mental illness are bound to make the same equality-based case.

The revision also wants to eliminate the reflection period, which means people can receive a diagnosis, and lethal injection, within the same 24-hour period. The bill also makes it possible for those who are “incompetent” to receive lethal injection if they’ve previously been approved. That is, those who are incapable of confirming their previous stance. Critics are calling this some of the loosest assisted dying legislation in the world. Assisted suicide itself raises a host of moral dilemmas, chief of which is the message it sends about human value. Laws like these assume that human life is only valuable if someone is useful to society in some way, not intrinsically valuable in and of itself.

Those with disabilities appear to be among the most concerned because they believe the mentality behind this practice puts them in jeopardy. As the Council of Canadians with Disabilities states “CCD opposes government action to decriminalize assisted suicide because of the serious potential for abuse and the negative image of people with disabilities that would be produced if people with disabilities are killed with state sanction.” Dr. Ramona Coelho, a family physician in London Ontario agrees, “The message that C-7 sends to those with chronic illnesses or disabilities is that their lives are not worth living and that they would be better off dead. As physicians, we fear that this system would quickly change from one that gives people a choice to die, to one that coerces people to die.” Since 2016, it has not been uncommon for doctors in Canada to recommend MAID to those who are disabled or suffering from severe conditions. 42-year-old Roger Foley made headlines in 2018 after suing a London, Ontario hospital. He said they refused to offer him home health care services and instead recommended assisted suicide. A year earlier, A Newfoundland mother demanded an apology after doctors suggested her 25-year-old daughter, Candice Elson, receive assistance in suicide. After refusing, they called her “selfish” and referred to Candice as a “frequent flyer,” insinuating that her regular visits to the hospital were a drain on the system. Stories like these bring to startling clarity many of the original concerns people had with MAID.

If C-7 is passed in December, it means the wedge driven between human sanctity and expendability could become a wall. MAID was legislated under the banner of helping people to “die with dignity,” but for many physicians, sick and disabled people, C-7 is an even steeper decline.  Will Canada continue its devaluation of human life? Or will officials take a late, but needed, stand against this trend? It’s hard to tell at this point, with the Liberal government being on such precarious ground at the moment, an election could possibly be called. In any case, Canadians who value life need to remember the words of our anthem and “stand on guard” for life, through love and truth.



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Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash