While many disability groups fought the initial push to legalize assisted suicide in Canada three years ago, they are having to fight again as efforts to expand access to assisted suicide to the disabled in the country continue.
In Canada, only those facing “foreseeable” death are eligible for assisted suicide.
This week, two people from Montreal, Jean Truchon, 49, and Nicole Gladu, 73, started their legal battle in the Quebec Superior Court to expand access to assisted suicide to people with disabilities and severe health problems. Both Truchon and Gladu “suffer from serious health problems that cause persistent and intolerable suffering,” their lawyer, Jean-Pierre Ménard, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
This court case, along with other efforts to open up access to assisted suicide to the disabled, has many disabled people and disability groups raising serious concerns about the implications of such a move.
"If this criteria of close-to-the-end — of foreseeable, natural end of life — is taken away, then you have put the entire handicapped and chronically ill population in harm's way," Gordon Friesen, who uses a wheelchair, told the CBC.
In February 2015, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that doctors may help patients who have severe and incurable suffering to kill themselves. It ordered Parliament to create a legislative response, and a bill was passed in June 2016 allowing assisted suicide for anyone facing “foreseeable” death due to an illness or condition.
Bruce Uditsky, CEO Emeritus of Inclusion Alberta, a disability rights group in Canada, told CNA that expanding access to assisted suicide to people with disabilities could potentially jeopardize thousands of lives, and would disincentivize initiatives to provide the disabled with the resources and support they need.
“I think it brings pretty serious implications, even frightening ones, that come out of these continuing efforts to expand who would be eligible for assistance in dying,” Uditsky said.
“Our view is that if it continues to be expanded, then it will threaten the lives of those with disabilities because the perception will continue to be made that somehow those are lives that are unworthy of continuing,” Uditsky said.
Some advocacy groups are leading national efforts to intervene, and to offer the “view that the current limitation on access is a necessary, justifiable and reasonable criteria,” Uditsky said.
Uditsky said he and many within the disability rights community have serious concerns about expanded access to assisted suicide, and how that would further disincentivize the government to create or fund supports and resources for people living with disabilities who want to improve their lives.
“It’s particularly troubling because assistance with dying as a health provision, you now have a right to that if you meet the criteria,” he said. “But we don’t have the rights for people with disabilities in Canada to have the supports they require to enjoy a life comparable to those without disabilities.”
“So we’re further along almost in demonstrating a right to be killed than we are in demonstrating the right to supports to live in your own home, to be employed, to be included in school, to have a career … and when we lag behind on those fronts, it’s a little easier to see why people would have lives of quite significant struggle and challenge.”
Amy Hasbrouck, a spokesperson for disability rights group Not Dead Yet Canada, told CNA that the opposition to assisted suicide from many in the disabled community is based on concerns that assisted suicide legislation discriminates against the disabled and puts vulnerable people at risk for coercion.
“People with disabilities who ask to die are considered to be making a ‘rational’ choice, whereas non-disabled people who express a wish to die are labelled as irrational, in need of suicide prevention intervention, and may even be deprived of their liberty to prevent them from killing themselves,” Hasbrouck told CNA in email comments.
“This double standard is based on the widely-held view that life with a disability is a fate worse than death,” she said.
She also shared Uditsky’s concern that offering assisted suicide to a vulnerable population disincentivizes the government and society in providing resources and life supports.
“The reasons most people ask for assisted suicide and euthanasia are associated with the onset of disability and the discriminatory public policies that shunts old, ill and disabled people into institutional settings, where we are deprived of control over every detail of our daily lives,” she said.
“A shift in funding priorities toward consumer-directed in-home personal assistance services, home modifications and community accessibility would go a long way toward dealing with the existential suffering expressed by people who do not want to be forced to live in an institution.”
There are no amount of safeguards that a government can put in place that would prevent people from being coerced into assisted suicide, Hasbrouck added.
Even “the strictest safeguards cannot predict or prevent all eventualities,” Hasbrouck said, and currently “none of the statutes … even comes close to preventing ineligible people from being euthanized, ensuring that doctors report every assisted suicide or euthanasia, protecting against abuse and exploitation by family members, or any number of hazards associated with allowing the state to establish criteria for who lives and who dies.”
Similar concerns were also raised in the recent case of a Canadian man, Roger Foley, who suffers from an incurable disease and claims that despite asking for home care, the medical team at an Ontario hospital would only offer him assisted suicide.
Since Quebec's assisted death law and the federal legislation came into force two years ago, 3,714 Canadians have died by assisted suicide, according to the CBC.
Besides those with disabilities, the Council of Canadian Academies is also currently reviewing whether assisted suicide should be provided to the mentally ill and to “competent minors.”
The Quebec Supreme Court case is expected to last several weeks.