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Euthanasia is rapidly expanding: How can we respond?

Julian Paparella

Friday, January 26, 2024

Photo from Pexels.
This month, Salt + Light Media’s new episode of behold features an exclusive interview with Dr. Moira McQueen, a moral theologian who serves as Executive Director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute. Dr. McQueen joins Deacon Pedro to speak about euthanasia in Canada. It is an invitation for all of us to reflect more deeply on this vital topic. Salt + Light Plus subscribers can watch the full episode here.
Euthanasia is becoming accessible to an increasing number of Canadians. What should we know about these changes? 
When euthanasia was first legalized in Canada in June 2016, it was only granted to those who were already dying, for whom natural death was already “reasonably foreseeable.” This meant that a patient had to be in a state of advanced terminal illness in their body in order to be considered eligible for euthanasia. 
In March 2021, legislation was passed to open up euthanasia – officially known in Canada as Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) – to people who were not previously eligible. This includes those who are not suffering from any physical illness whatsoever, such as those suffering from mental illness. This law received Royal Assent on March 17, 2021, immediately enacting all the new provisions for eligibility except one: accessing euthanasia solely for reasons of mental illness was temporarily suspended for 2 years in order to develop protocols for its implementation. On March 9, 2023, Royal Assent was given to further extend this suspension until March 17, 2024. From then on, Canadians suffering solely because of mental illness will be eligible for euthanasia. 
Initially, the rationale for expanding euthanasia in Canada was that only allowing it for physically ill patients would discriminate against those who suffer from mental illness. Yet from the time the law was passed, countless voices – including those quoted below – have called out for improved ways to offer people the help they need. These include better mental health care, greater access to counselling, better support for people with disabilities, and more investment in palliative care. 
The sad reality is that this new expansion in euthanasia means offering people death instead of care as a way of dealing with their suffering. The most recent statistics on MAiD in Canada show that euthanasia now accounts for over 4% of deaths in Canada – more than 13,000 Canadians per year. Of course, this was even before it was opened to people suffering from mental illness. A wide range of news stories have emerged about people in desperate situations who will soon seek euthanasia simply because they see no other way out. People who are living in poverty, experiencing homelessness, or suffering extreme depression are now turning to euthanasia as if it was their only hope. There are real solutions that we could come up with that are so much better than giving people the impression that dying is their only option.
Dr. John Maher, a psychiatrist with the Canadian Mental Health Association in Barrie, Ontario, described one such situation as follows: “I had a patient who talked to me recently about MAiD who wants to die because of his belief no one will ever love him.” Yet Dr. Maher told CTV investigators that “the wait times for our treatment programs in Ontario are up to five years.” Ultimately, Dr. Maher found that when it comes to MAiD: “The doctor is the sanitized gun.”
Human rights experts have also expressed serious concerns about widening access to euthanasia in Canada. Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, stated to the Associated Press that euthanasia “cannot be a default for Canada’s failure to fulfill its human rights obligations.” Landry echoed the “grave concern” that was expressed in 2021 by three UN human rights experts, who found that Canada’s new euthanasia legislation appeared to violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The experts pointed to the “discriminatory impact” that the legislation has on people with disabilities and stated that the laws were not consistent with Canada’s obligations when it comes to international human rights.
Canadians with disabilities have been expressing their opposition to these new measures from the outset. According to Jonathan Marchand, a man with disabilities living in a long-term care facility in Quebec who spoke to the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, “MAiD was initially for people at the very end of their lives. Now they are expanding it to people with disabilities as there is this prevalent thinking that our lives are not worth living. So, instead of being offered suicide prevention we're being provided assistance to kill ourselves. It is discriminatory, hypocritical, immoral, and unethical. We want choice and control over our lives, not a fast track toward death.”
What can we do amidst this tragic reality? In their message to Catholics, the Bishops of Canada have summed up our responsibility in the light of the faith:
We are called, as Christians today, to continue to give witness to our Lord’s actions and presence by following His example: 
LET US respond with compassion and tenderness to persons struggling with mental health challenges, including mental illnesses; 
LET US advocate on their behalf for greater access to professional and community supports; 
LET US work to remedy factors which can adversely affect mental health, such as loneliness, marginalization, stigmatization, poverty, and abandonment.
There are so many pathways that we can pursue to assist those who are hurting in mind, body, and soul. As human beings and as Christians, we are called to reach out our hands, roll up our sleeves, and find solutions that give people the hope and care they need, instead of leaving them stranded with the sense that euthanasia is the only way out.

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