A decision looms on whether to continue MAID expansion

In 2021, Parliament approved expanding the eligibility criteria for medical assistance in dying to include those with a mental disorder as the only underlying condition, but suspended it amid widespread concern about the possible consequences.

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OTTAWA – John Scully wants to know that a medically assisted death would be an option for him if he wants it.

The former war correspondent suffers from serious mental illness, a mix of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

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He speaks again as the Liberals face a looming decision on whether to proceed with an expansion of medically assisted dying currently set to take effect in March.

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Medical assistance in dying has been legal in Canada since 2016. In 2021, Parliament voted to expand eligibility criteria to include people with a mental disorder as the only underlying condition.

That change was due to come into effect in March 2023, but just before it did, the Liberal government paused it for another year amid widespread concern about the potential consequences.

Opponents of the change, including some disability advocates, have raised concerns about whether it will further open the door to abuse and coercion, and whether people will choose to end their lives when what they really need is better access to support, including housing and mental assistance. health care.

A joint committee of MPs was asked last fall to look into the question of whether the health-care system was ready, and the Liberals are now faced with the decision of whether to go ahead with expanding the rules.

Justice Minister Arif Virani told The Canadian Press last month that he would carefully examine what the committee recommends, opening the door to another pause in the plan to expand eligibility.

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Scully says he regularly experiences terrible nightmares, which he says prevent him from sleeping and are a result of his career as a journalist.

The 82-year-old has tried, as he puts it, “every treatment method known to science” and nothing has worked. He has tried to commit suicide twice and doesn’t want to do it again.

“I want some peace and I want some tranquility in my death,” he said in an interview Monday.

What Scully wants is the option to die with medical assistance.

“Not like something definitive: ‘I want to die now.’ I want it there as an option to suicide,” she says.

“I want the comfort of knowing that (medically assisted dying) is there for me and for all the people like me who cannot or do not want to talk about the suffering and hell they are going through, and to avoid the hell of suicide.”

Senator Stan Kutcher, a Nova Scotia psychiatrist, defended expanding the law to include mental illness. He was part of the committee that studied the issue last year and said he believes the courts have ruled that Canadians should have access to medical assistance in dying on a case-by-case basis. He said he hopes Canada’s attorney general will “adhere to the Charter.”

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But while the senator and other expansion advocates say excluding people with mental disorders amounts to discrimination and would likely lead to a court challenge in the future, a constitutional law expert says “big questions” still remain on that issue. .

“Anyone can bring a case, anyone can bring a challenge to the Charter,” says Kerri Froc, a law professor at the University of New Brunswick.

“The question is: is it going to be successful?”

Froc was one of the legal and medical experts who submitted briefs to the committee of parliamentarians and senators studying the issue, saying in his that any potential court challenge over the question of whether mental illness alone could qualify a person for a medically assisted death would be “highly contingent” on the set of facts presented.

Froc says he disagrees with arguments that such a future challenge would amount to a “diving.”

Still, others like Jocelyn Downie, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, told The Canadian Press last month that another delay in the expansion could force people who are suffering intolerably to have to go to court, as they have. done others in the past.

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The federal government moved to legalize medical assistance in dying after a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision, which ruled that the part of the Criminal Code that prohibited doctors from doing so was unconstitutional in situations where a person was suffering from a “ serious and irremediable medical condition.” ”, whether due to an illness, disease or disability.

The updated law that Parliament passed in 2021 was also a response to a 2019 court decision by the Quebec Superior Court that found it unconstitutional to require that medically assisted death be limited to someone whose natural death was “reasonably foreseeable.”

But during debate on a bill introduced to amend medically assisted dying legislation to reflect that court decision, the Senate added an amendment to include those whose only reason for seeking an assisted death is a mental disorder. The House of Commons accepted that change and the bill was passed.

The reaction was quick.

More than 30 law professors signed an open letter last year saying it was “reckless” to suggest that courts would recognize a constitutional right to assisted dying for such patients.

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Scully said Monday that if the federal Liberals decide to delay that expansion again, the only option that would leave him wanting to die would be suicide.

He says it would also amount to a “betrayal of every person suffering from a desperate mental illness.”

“To tell me that there is hope around the corner for me; I looked around the corner and there’s nothing there. There’s no hope.”

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, support is available 24/7 by calling Talk Suicide Canada (1-833-456-4566) or texting 45645 in the evenings. . Quebec residents can call 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553) or visit suicide.ca for help via text message and online chat.

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