Perspective: Want to see the ‘slippery slope’ of assisted suicide? Look north
Canada’s medical-assistance-in-dying laws enabled more than 10,000 people to take their own lives in 2021
In the early 2010s, my father spent 10 months in a hospital in the suburbs of Toronto, including several stints in the intensive care unit. Having grown up in Canada, I can tell you the good and bad about the health care system there, but at least — at the time — we didn’t have to worry that hospital personnel would try to convince my dad that he should end his own life in order to save the government money.
That is the dystopian world some patients say they entered after being admitted to Canadian hospitals in the wake of a 2016 law that allows doctors and nurse practitioners to assist patients in dying. In most provinces, the law provides a carve-out for medical personnel who do not want to participate in assisted suicide because of their personal beliefs or values, but in Ontario a doctor is required to either assist or find a doctor who will.
More than 10,000 people took their own lives with the help of medical personnel in Canada last year, which is 32% more than in 2020, according to a Canadian government report. At this point, the law requires patients to have a serious medical condition in order to be eligible for assisted suicide, but by next year the law will permit people with mental health conditions to request assisted suicide or euthanasia.
The law came under scrutiny again in recent days after a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury said he felt pressured to consider assisted suicide when a Veterans Affairs Canada employee repeatedly raised the issue, even though the veteran had not expressed a desire to end his life. The veteran told Global News the federal employee continued to press euthanasia as an option even after he rejected the idea.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident “unacceptable,” and said there would be a full investigation.
Trudeau was less responsive to an AP report that detailed how the poor and disabled were encouraged to consider assisted suicide by Canadian hospital personnel. The article describes the experience of Sean Tagert, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease and was struggling to get the expensive home care he needed. Before his death by assisted suicide, he was trying to raise money to buy medical equipment so he could be cared for in his home.
A man with degenerative brain disease, Roger Foley, said he was repeatedly pressured by hospital staff to consider assisted suicide because of the cost of his care. In a recorded conversation he shared with AP, he was told by the hospital’s director of ethics that the cost of his care was “north of $1,500 a day,” to which Foley replied that the conversation about cost felt like coercion.
Stories like these led a writer for Britain’s The Spectator to ask, “Why is Canada euthanizing the poor?”
Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, has been successfully fighting assisted suicide bills for 10 years in his deep blue state. His coalition was able to keep the bills from becoming law, he said, because the issue cuts across lines like “religious versus secular” and “left versus right.”
“The Family Institute of Connecticut is a socially conservative group, but we’ve made common cause with liberal, left-leaning, disability advocacy groups,” he said. Advocacy groups for the disabled have raised concerns that people with disabilities will eventually be told the medications to keep them alive cost more than the medications that cause death, in an attempt to convince them to end their lives, Wolfgang said.
This is exactly what appears to have happened in Canada, with troubling implications.
Assisted suicide involves a doctor prescribing medication to a person, who then takes the medication on his own. Euthanasia is when the doctor administers the lethal medicine to the patient. Canadian law allows both.
The Canadian law doesn’t stop hospital personnel from trying to convince patients that assisted suicide is a good option for them. It does require patients to be able to give “informed consent” and to receive all the information they need, including their condition, treatments available and options to reduce suffering. But it doesn’t require a third party to assess whether the patient is indeed giving informed consent, or if they feel pressured into agreeing to death by suicide.
Assisted suicide is legal in parts or all of eight countries, including Canada, and in 11 states in the U.S., including California, Montana and Colorado. Canada’s law is considered among the most expansive, and has some of the fewest safeguards for patients.
When Pope Francis visited Canada in July, he spoke about assisted suicide in his address. “We need to learn how to listen to the pain of those who, in our crowded and depersonalized cities, often silently cry out: Don’t abandon us! It is the plea of … patients who, in place of affection, are administered death.”
My father lived several years after his long stay in the hospital. We were grateful for those years with him and that he was able to meet and spend time with all of his grandchildren. I don’t think medical personnel would have been able to convince him to sign away his life, despite the at-times unbearable pain he was in, and I’m glad I didn’t have to find out. Other Canadian families weren’t so lucky.