vancouver, british columbia — The Canadian government is delaying access to medically assisted death for people with mental illness.
Those suffering from mental illness were supposed to be able to access Medical Assistance in Dying — also known as MAID — starting March 17. The recent announcement by the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the second delay after original legislation authorizing the practice passed in 2021.
The delay came in response to a recommendation by a majority of the members of a committee made up of senators and members of Parliament.
One of the most high-profile proponents of MAID is British Columbia-based lawyer Chris Considine. In the mid-1990s, he represented Sue Rodriguez, who was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS.
Their bid for approval of a medically assisted death was rejected at the time by the Supreme Court of Canada. But a law passed in 2016 legalized euthanasia for individuals with terminal conditions. From then until 2022, more than 45,000 people chose to die.
Considine said he was in favor of postponing an extension of the law to those with mental illness because depression can have numerous reasons, such as poor housing or job prospects. He pointed to the difficulty many people face in getting timely psychiatric help.
He said pressure for the delay came from numerous parts of Canadian society.
“I think that there was pressure from a number of sources, including provincial governments in Canada, a number of them who felt that they could not provide the funding nor the resources for persons who are depressed to receive access to health care professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists,” he said.
Pamela Wallin, a former journalist, was one of three senators in the minority on the parliamentary committee. She told VOA that medical experts say they are ready, but not the politicians. She feels continuing the delay is cruel.
“But if you have a mental illness, no, no, no. We’ve already made you work and wait for three years on this, and we promised you it would be ready,” she said. “But now we’re going to make you wait another three years while we think about it some more. I’m just appalled that we would do this to people who are suffering in ways that many of us can’t even understand.”
Sally Thorne, a professor emeritus of nursing at the University of British Columbia, said if mentally ill people wish to apply for medical assistance in their deaths, they have to meet all the current requirements for people with physical ailments whose deaths are not reasonably foreseeable but who have chronic and life-limiting conditions.
These requirements include evaluations by multiple doctors, including a specialist in a patient’s particular condition, being offered other methods of treatment, and a 90-day waiting period.
Thorne said she was not worried about the argument that those with mental disorders lack the ability to give consent.
“Because such people do, in our society, buy a house or sign consent for cardiac surgery or something like that. We do as a society understand that there’s a difference between having a mental illness and having the capacity to provide informed consent,” she said.
Thorne said it was an interesting paradox that those with mental illness who also have qualifying physical conditions can legally access medical assistance in dying.
Arthur Schafer, the founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, said the pressure for the latest pause was entirely expected and was misguided.
“I think when people are asking their opinion when the general public is there, assuming, ‘Hey, if you’re mentally ill, you won’t really know what you want, or you won’t be capable, or you may be temporarily depressed, and that makes you vulnerable.’ But that isn’t what will happen,” he said.
Nicole Scheidl, the executive director of Ottawa-based Physicians for Life, who is strongly opposed to euthanasia, said the idea of extending MAID to cover mental health sufferers should be abandoned permanently.
“Frankly, I think they should drop it,” she said. “I don’t see how there’s any medical evidence to show that they can produce clinical practical guidelines, practice guidelines, that would be useful.”
The Trudeau government has announced the delay will last until at least 2027. This will move the issue until after the next federal election, which must happen no later than October 20, 2025.