Grief, desperation, resolve: Families of B.C. patients plead for better safeguards for assisted deaths

Many Canadians are unaware that our legislators are seeking another dramatic expansion of medically assisted dying legislation, so the families of two British Columbia patients are raising the alarm to warn of the existing shortcomings and blind spots.

The federal government is forging ahead with plans to further expand Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD): it initially required that a patient be physically suffering and have a terminal diagnosis, which a majority of Canadians support according to opinion polling. But the legislation has expanded and no longer requires foreseeable death, and is expected to soon permit those with mental illness alone to seek physician-assisted suicide as early as March.

"How can our government keep expanding MAID with still so many cases of wrongful death?” asked an emotional Trish Nichols at an Ottawa press conference featuring family members.

Her brother, Alan, died in Chilliwack with the help of Fraser Health staff in 2019 while suffering severe depression and rage issues he did not address, which raised questions about how easy it is to seek death versus treatment.

Last fall, Donna Duncan was declining mentally and physically, weighing just 82 pounds when doctors helped her die in Abbotsford. She was still on the waiting list for a complex chronic disease clinic at the time, and her distraught daughters told reporters she serves as a prime example of the healthcare system failing someone in need. 

"It is imperative that these safeguards ensure vulnerable people are provided care as a first option, not death," said Alicia Duncan, speaking virtually from her home in Mission.

EXPERTS AND ADVOCATES CONTINUE TO OPPOSE BILL C-7

A special joint committee of members of parliament and senators is reviewing the current legislation and considering the expansion to those with mental illness, as well as the possibility that someone could pre-apply for MAID while they still have the mental capacity to do so. https://www.parl.ca/LegisInfo/en/bill/43-2/C-7

As they debate Bill C-7, they have heard from experts and advocates in various fields speaking to the thorny issues around access to medically-assisted death, with most speakers raising concerns that the disabled, elderly and poor will be pressured to choose death – or see it as the only viable option to avoid suffering in the face of their current situation, even one that could be remedied or improved with more support.

“Many Canadians face, however, the prospect of being warehoused in substandard long-term care homes and we already see how lack of resources and quality care leads persons who are not dying to request MAiD," pointed out University of Toronto Law professor and Scholl Chair in Health Law and Policy, Trudo Lemmens.

Palliative care physician and MAiD assessor, Dr. Susan MacDonald, told the committee that choice should be their key consideration.

"People should be able to determine whether they want MAiD at a future date should they become incapacitated,” she insisted. “Many of my patients have told me over the years that the one thing they fear the most -- beyond pain, beyond shortness of breath, beyond anything else -- is the loss of ability to make their own decisions. This creates tremendous human suffering."

Advocates working to “kill bill C7” insist those without privilege and resources will be negatively and disproportionally impacted, and are ramping up their efforts to defeat the expansion of the legislation, urging the public to send their feedback to lawmakers. 

Please submit a 1,000 word brief (letter/statement) to Special Joint Committee on MAiD before May 30th.
The deadline has been extended. https://t.co/mIDsWAxoGl

— Disability Filibuster (@DisabilityFili1) May 10, 2022

PRESSURE CAN TAKE MANY FORMS

Geriatrician, Dr. Catherine Ferrier, told legislators that she fears the exploitation of elders and those seen as a burden to family members.

"Safeguards don't work,” she said. “Documents can be abused, I've seen documents abused in my practice in geriatrics."

Conservative MPs who organized the press conference with family members expressed similar concerns.

"Instances of abuse, coercion and non-compliance can not be brushed under the rug,” claimed St. Albert – Edmonton MP, Michael Cooper. “They need to be addressed and they need to be studied and that's something the Liberals up until now have shown absolutely zero interest in doing while moving ahead to further expand MAiD."

The federal government insists it’s not promoting or encouraging MAiD, but facilitating what Canadians are asking for.

“We strongly support better access and availability of care options for all Canadians,” reads the Health Canada website on MAiD, noting they have made investments in-home care and palliative services while working to “better meet the needs of disability communities in Canada.”