Opposition parties call for indefinite pause on expansion of medically assisted dying for mental illnesses

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A special parliamentary committee is expected to release a report this week that could influence the federal government’s decision on whether to allow people suffering solely from a mental illness to obtain medical assistance in dying.

Conservative and NDP members of the Joint Committee on Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) say they want an indefinite pause on the imminent expansion of eligibility for medical assistance in dying to include cases of illness mental. This expansion is expected to take place on March 17.

“Canada is not ready,” said Michael Cooper, committee member and Conservative MP for St. Albert—Edmonton.

The committee, made up of 15 deputies and senators, was charged by the federal government last fall with determining whether the health system is ready to cope with expansion.

Witnesses from legal and medical backgrounds gave committee members a wide range of perspectives on both sides of this very sensitive issue.

Cooper said he was influenced by psychiatrists who told the committee it would be difficult, if not impossible, for medical professionals to decide whether a mental illness cannot be treated or whether seeking MAID d A person is rational or motivated by suicidal ideation.

“These liberals put ideology ahead of evidence-based decision-making,” Cooper said.

Senator Stanley Kutcher is a member of the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying.
Senator Stanley Kutcher is urging the federal government to allow medical assistance in dying for people whose only health problem is mental illness. (Supplied/CBC)

Another committee member, Nova Scotia Senator Stanley Kutcher, disagrees.

Kucher said Canadians with irremediable mental illnesses deserve the same rights as those with serious physical illnesses.

“I think we need to be led by … compassion,” said Kutcher, a psychiatrist who pushed for MAID to include mental illness.

“We cannot discriminate against certain people being allowed to make an end-of-life choice.”

The committee is catching up

The committee was formed in 2021 after Parliament passed a bill expanding medical assistance in dying to include people with mental illness. The bill was amended when senators voted to impose an 18-month delay on the bill’s proposed blanket ban on medical assistance in dying for people suffering solely from mental illnesses.

British Columbia NDP MP Alistair MacGregor, one of the committee’s vice-chairs, said the law was changed without proper consultation, leaving parliamentarians and many different sectors of Canadian society struggling to catch up. delay.

“It feels like on this issue, (the government) built the plane while it’s flying in the air,” said MacGregor, who represents the riding of Cowichan—Malahat—Langford.

“All of this speaks to the Liberals’ mismanagement of this file from the start, which now leaves us in a sort of legal limbo.”

A man in a gray suit speaks in the House of Commons.
NDP MP Alistair MacGregor said the federal government must rein in the expansion of medical assistance in dying. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The government has already suspended the expansion of MAID once, until March 17. Health Minister Mark Holland does not rule out another delay.

An extended pause would force the government to introduce legislation, which is expected to gain royal assent before the March 17 deadline.

Holland said the government would make a decision after the committee’s findings were tabled. The committee’s deadline to submit its report is January 31.

“We certainly recognize that there is an equivalence between physical suffering and mental suffering,” Holland said. “But we need to make sure the supports are there, the training is in place.”

Is Canada ready?

Holland acknowledged the concerns raised by the two experts who testified before the committee and by provincial and territorial Governments.

The government of Quebec is we do not plan to extend medical assistance in dying to people with mental disorders. The province has said mental illness is “not considered a disease” for the purposes of MAID.

Helen Long, CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada, said the government has met three main prerequisites to expand eligibility for medical assistance in dying to mental illnesses: expanding data collection, establishing a national program for professionals health and develop standards of practice.

“They’re ready to move forward,” Long said.

Health Minister Mark Holland is awaiting the report of the Special Joint Committee on Medical Assistance in Dying before making a final decision.
Health Minister Mark Holland is not ruling out another delay in opening medical assistance in dying to people with mental illness. (Canadian Press/Christinne Muschi)

Only a small number of people whose only health problem is mental illness would be eligible for medical assistance in dying, Long said. She said these are people who have endured many years of suffering and tried several treatments.

Dr Jitender Sareen is among a group of eight university chairs in psychiatry who have written to federal ministers and urged the committee not to expand medical assistance in dying to include mental illness.

Sareen said standards of practice to guide psychiatrists and clinicians are inadequate and Canada lags behind other countries in funding for mental health and addictions.

“Offering death to a person who has not had the opportunity to improve, with or without treatment, is, in our opinion, not acceptable,” said Sareen, professor and head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba.

Protect the most vulnerable

Dr. Sonu Gand, a professor at the University of Toronto and head of psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said there are not enough safeguards in place to protect the most vulnerable.

“If this were to go ahead as currently planned, it would be completely irresponsible,” Ghent said.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she supported the expansion but did not think it should continue until better social and economic supports were in place, such as a minimum income guaranteed.

“At this time, we can never say with certainty that no one in Canada would seek medical assistance in dying because they do not have housing or cannot afford to pay their rent ” said May.

Health Canada has reported 13,241 people received medical assistance in dying in 2022 – a jump of 31.2 percent compared to 2021.

It says 44,958 people have received medical assistance in dying since the federal legislation was introduced in 2016.

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