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The Complexities Of Canada's Newest Law About Physician Assisted Suicide

It was not a question of whether we were going to move forward with medical-assisted dying, it was a question of how,

said Canadian Justice Minister Jodi Wilson-Raybould at a press conference on April 7. The topic at hand was that of Canada’s proposed legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide through voluntary euthanasia.

Physician-assisted suicide has long been a topic of heated debate and controversy concerning the respect (or lack thereof) for the human life, and the matter has received especially strong opposition from the Catholic Church and other religious organizations. Yet a moral opposition to suicide is not the primary objection for most Canadians who oppose the law.

As a matter of fact, terminally ill patient’s option and right to choose suicide is viewed quite favorably in Canada. Criminal prohibitions on physician-assisted suicide were struck down in February 2015 by the Canadian Supreme Court. The newly developed law will put into place regulations and criteria for who exactly is eligible to seek out physician-assisted suicide, limiting the number of patients who will legally be allowed this right.

Critics respond to legal restrictions

The primary opposition to the law is that it’s not inclusive enough for all the types of patients who may want to seek out assisted suicide as opposed seeking out additional treatments. The newest legislation states that voluntary consent must be personally given by the individual, who must be mentally competent and over 18 years of age. He or she must have a “serious and incurable illness, disease or disability,” and their death must be “reasonably foreseeable.”

Advocacy groups such as Dying with Dignity have criticized the law for discriminating against patients with dementia, or other chronic illnesses that prevent them from competently giving consent to medically induced death under the eyes of the law. The law does not have an option for a patient to give advance consent, where an adult can pre-approve assisted suicide under specified circumstances when he or she cannot consciously make that decision.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has also criticized the new legislative restriction stipulating that an individual’s death must be “reasonably foreseeable” in order for him or her to seek out medical assistance in dying. This immediately blocks access to a huge population of people whose qualities of life are otherwise compromised by terminal diseases or disabilities. The highly interpretive nature of the term “reasonably foreseeable” has the potential to give too much decision-making power to physicians and nurses over a patient’s very personal life or death decision.

Physician assisted suicide vs. voluntary euthanasia

One could argue, however, that the physician should have the right to make such a decision, particularly in regard to voluntary euthanasia at least. As opposed to what is considered a "typical" physician-assisted suicide, often where a physician prescribes a lethal dosage of medication for the patient (thus assisting them in medically causing their own death) to ingest at a later time in order to induce death, voluntary euthanasia requires a physician to bring about death for the patient first-handedly, usually through a form of lethal injection.

Euthanasia is classified as homicide in the United States, and voluntary euthanasia is currently legal in only four countries in the world. To perform such an act on another human being, even if it is considered an act of mercy to help that person, is a heavy weight to bear. As the individual responsible for taking another person’s life, a physician arguably has every right to decide whether a patient qualifies for voluntary euthanasia as opposed to assisted suicide.

As only the fifth country to legalize voluntary euthanasia, Canada is treading controversial new ground with the good intention of better serving its citizens. Concerns of the law’s restrictions being too exclusive are valid criticisms (which Canadian government officials have guaranteed will be looked at and reevaluated after the law’s passing) are valid and just. And these restrictions may be flaws, but they are manageable flaws for the time being. A law based around the decision to take a person’s life is surely better tested out gradually than implemented at full force.