Liberals table legislation to expand access to assisted dying

The Liberal government tabled legislation Monday to amend the rules on medical assistance in dying (MAID), repealing the requirement that a person’s natural death be “reasonably foreseeable” and disqualifying those whose sole underlying condition is a mental illness.

The bill arrives after the government launched an online survey on MAID and held roundtables in cities across the country.

The proposed changes also would permit access to MAID to someone whose death is foreseeable, but who has lost the capacity to consent after deciding to do so through an agreement with a medical or nurse practitioner.

Justice Minister David Lametti and Health Minister Patty Hajdu are holding a news conference at 4:30 p.m. ET to discuss the proposed changes; is carrying it live.

“Medical assistance in dying is a deeply personal issue that touches real people and real families. Canadians have shown us during the consultations just how important this issue is to them,” Lametti said in a news release.

“We are proud to announce proposed changes that have been informed by their views as well as by Canada’s experiences to date in implementing the 2016 medical assistance in dying regime. The proposed amendments aim to reduce suffering, while also supporting individual autonomy and freedom of choice.”

In September 2019, a Quebec judge declared parts of the federal and provincial laws on assisted dying unconstitutional, and gave the federal government six months to pass new legislation.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Christine Baudouin said one portion of the federal law — requiring that a patient must face a “reasonably foreseeable” death before seeking medical assistance in dying — violated Canadians’ charter rights. 

Lametti has said the calendar for drafting the legislation was challenged by the federal election, the time needed to appoint a new cabinet and the holiday season, but that he would do his best to meet the mid-March deadline imposed by the court.

Since MAID became legal in Canada in June 2016, there have been more than 13,000 medically assisted deaths, according to background material provided by Justice Canada. Cancer is the most frequently cited underlying medical condition, followed by neurological conditions and cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, according to the government document.

The federal government’s online survey drew nearly 300,000 responses.

One of the questions on it asked whether it should be mandatory for a patient to receive a third medical consultation with an expert before receiving permission to obtain a medically assisted death.

‘Reflection period’

It also asked if the federal government should change the length of the current 10-day “reflection period” between requesting and receiving a medically assisted death.

The government also is considering input on whether the updated law should allow advance requests, on access for the so-called “mature minors” doctors consider capable of making their own decisions on medical care, and on whether psychiatric conditions should be grounds for assisted death.

The government commissioned three independent reports on those issues, which were submitted to the government more than a year ago by the Council of Canadian Academies, a group that pulls together experts to consider public policy.

Canada’s existing MAID law requires a parliamentary review and a study of the state of the palliative care in Canada by June 2020.

Lametti told CBC Radio One’s The House earlier this month the message that emerged from the consultations is that Canadians want expanded access to medical assistance in dying.

“There does seem to be a clear tendency that Canadians are largely in agreement that we ought to expand the possibility for medical assistance in dying beyond the end-of-life scenario,” Lametti told host Chris Hall.

“Obviously there are some voices that don’t agree. People living with disabilities can see this as a threat, even an existential threat, and we’re trying to achieve the right balance there to not stigmatize people in that context.”

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