The federal government unveiled its assisted-dying legislation Thursday, after numerous delays and an extension from the Supreme Court of Canada granted last winter.
Health Minister Jane Philpott and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould were both on hand Thursday morning in Ottawa to provide details. Their announcement comes more than a year after the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s ban on doctor-assisted death.
Here are some of the major points:
The proposed law, which must still be debated and passed in the House of Commons, is not as permissive as recommended by a special joint Parliamentary committee that examined the issue of assisted death this past year.
The law will not allow for anyone under the age of 18 to seek or receive help in dying. It will also likely exclude many Canadians suffering solely from mental illnesses, because one of the prerequisites for accessing assisted death is that the person’s natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.” Suicide would not be considered a natural death.
The government is proposing, however, to appoint “one or more independent bodies” to study how the law might be extended to mature minors or non-terminal mental health patients down the line. It will also examine the notion of allowing people to express wishes regarding doctor-assisted death in their wills (advanced directives).
The panel had urged the government to put as few obstacles as possible in front of Canadians who want a doctor’s help to end their suffering, and had recommended allowing mature minors and those suffering from mental illnesses to access assisted dying.
‘Advanced state’ of decline
The law states that anyone asking for medical help in dying must have a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability. They must also be in an “advanced state of irreversible decline in capability” and their death must be “reasonably foreseeable.”
These last two requirements could result in court challenges. The Supreme Court’s decision made no mention of being in an advanced state of decline when it struck down the ban on assisted death, stating only that a person should be suffering from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” in order to qualify. There was also no mention of reasonably foreseeable death.
Ottawa’s law does state, however, that a person can still get help dying even if they are not extremely close to natural death, as they must be under Quebec’s assisted-dying law.
The federal law includes a series of safeguards to ensure that patients are of sound mind and truly qualify for assisted death.
A patient will first need to make a written request to kick-start the process, and that request must be signed by two “independent” witnesses. Neither of those witnesses can be providing medical or other personal care to the patient, own or operate the facility where they are being cared for, or be a beneficiary of the patient’s will.
Two independent doctors or nurse practitioners must then evaluate the request and provide their opinions on whether the patient qualifies.
If a request is approved, there must have been a 15-day span between the signing of the request and death for “reflection.” That may be waived or shortened if death or loss of the capacity to consent is imminent.
Patients can withdraw their request at any point in the process.
WATCH: Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould outlines specific conditions required for those seeking assisted death
Prevention of ‘suicide tourism’
The new law will include a provision that limits access to assisted death to those who are eligible for health services funded by the government of Canada. That means you need a health card.
That will prevent so-called suicide tourism from other jurisdictions like the U.S., according to officials.
Timing and implementation
None of the changes in the Criminal Code or existing federal law will take effect until June 6, 2016, or until the new legislation is passed in Parliament.
People seeking or inquiring about assisted death in individual provinces like Quebec, where a law or guidelines already exists, can continue to do so.
Because provinces and territories have primary responsibility for delivery of healthcare, they will need to set out specific guidelines for how exactly doctors administer assisted death (order of injections, specific drugs, etc). The federal law only makes reference to administering “a substance” to cause death.
The federal government says it will “work with the provinces and territories to support a consistent approach to medical assistance in dying across Canada.”
WATCH: Feds plan to respect provinces ability to decide specifics of assisted-dying laws