Facing an imminent expansion of Canada’s assisted suicide law to make people suffering from mental illness eligible, the nation’s Catholic bishops are calling on healthcare providers to invest more in mental health resources to get people the help they need.

“With the threat of [assisted suicide] becoming available to Canadians whose sole medical condition is mental illness, we cannot emphasize enough how important it is for public healthcare to invest more in mental health resources,” the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Nov. 30.

“This investment is urgently needed, not only because of the present mental health crisis in which needs far exceed resources, but because discouragement and despair can also result from this very scarcity of reachable, reliable, and robust support,” the bishops said.

The Canadian Catholic Church has opposed the nation’s assisted suicide / euthanasia law, formally called Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD), since it was enacted in 2016. The bishops’ recent statement – stemming from their September plenary – not only focused on the law’s expansion scheduled for March 17, 2024, but made clear that it will not take place at Canadian Catholic healthcare institutions, as the Church “remains firm in its opposition to MAiD.”

The bishops implied that government officials and outside organizations have applied pressure to Catholic Canadian healthcare institutions to perform assisted suicide, to no avail.

Today, there are 129 Catholic healthcare providers across Canada, accounting for nearly 20,000 healthcare beds. These facilities are supported by 19 dioceses and 14 Catholic sponsors. They span across six provinces and 27 health regions and authorities.

“Euthanasia and assisted suicide (MAiD) have always been, and will always be, morally unacceptable because they are affronts to human dignity and violations of natural and divine law,” the bishops said.  “Catholic healthcare affirms that every person, made in the image of God, has intrinsic value, regardless of ability or health.”

“For these reasons, we, the members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, unanimously and unequivocally oppose the performance of either euthanasia or assisted suicide (MAiD) within health organizations with a Catholic identity,” the bishops continued. “We oppose efforts by governments or others to compel such facilities to perform MAiD in violation of Catholic teachings.”

“Anything to the contrary would deeply betray the identities of these institutions as Catholic and would not be in keeping with the Church’s moral teachings on the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person,” the bishops added.

Canadian lawmakers voted to legalize euthanasia in June, 2016.

According to data published by the Canadian government, in 2022 there were 13,241 assisted suicide deaths, accounting for 4.1 percent of all deaths in the country. That 2022 figure represents a growth rate of 31.2 percent over 2021, when there were 10,092 assisted suicide deaths. The government data shows that between 2016 – when it was legalized – and 2022, there were 44,958 assisted suicide deaths.

By multiple accounts, these are among the highest figures in the world.

Initially, the language of the law made people eligible for assisted suicide who “have a grievous and irremediable medical condition,” and for those whose “natural death” was “reasonably foreseeable.” In March 2021, the “reasonably foreseeable” language was repealed, thus expanding the law to allow any eligible person to pursue assisted suicide regardless if their natural death is reasonably foreseeable.

The 2021 expansion also included people with mental illnesses, but required a two-year study for experts to recommend the protocols and safeguards that should be followed.

The addition of language to allow euthanasia for people with mental illnesses was originally scheduled to go into effect in March 2023. However, government officials ultimately delayed the change for a year to March 2024. Canada’s Justice Minister David Lametti said in February 2023 that “it is clear more time is needed to get this right.”

On Oct. 18, Canada’s Parliament voted down a bill that would have amended the nation’s Criminal Code to block the assisted suicide law from expanding to include people with mental illness. In light of that vote, the expansion is on schedule to go into effect on March 17, 2024.

The Canadian bishops, in their statement, said that assisted suicide is not performed by any of the nation’s Catholic healthcare institutions, and that that will remain the case.

“We continue to commend and support the moral position taken by Catholic healthcare institutions across Canada which … do not permit either euthanasia or assisted suicide within their facilities,” the bishops said. “When patients choose an option that cannot be offered within a Catholic healthcare institution, they are assured of a safe and timely discharge and transfer of care.”

The bishops concluded that they “continue to pray for the sick, for all caregivers, and for lawmakers whose role it is to help shape a society that does not harm or endanger the lives of its citizens.”