Since Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) law was first introduced in 2016, more than 30,000 Canadians have chosen to end their lives through assisted suicide.
Last year, nearly one in 30 deaths recorded in Canada was an assisted suicide death.
These numbers are alarming to human rights advocates, including the head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, who warned earlier this year that people with disabilities were being denied their fundamental human dignity and pushed into a situation where death felt like the only solution.
Other vulnerable groups – including children and the mentally ill – are also threatened by recent efforts to expand assisted suicide in Canada, says human rights advocate Amanda Achtman.
Achtman, who works with Canadian Physicians for Life on ethics education and cultural engagement, is concerned that a societal desire to avoid suffering and a failure to respond to suffering with the proper care and compassion are fueling the growth in assisted suicide.
Achtman spoke recently with Charles Camosy about the rapid evolution of assisted suicide in Canada, where the country could be headed in the future, and the Catholic perspective on compassion in the face of suffering.
What's going on with Canada and assisted suicide right now? As an outsider, it seems like you've skipped the slippery slope and are now in an incredibly dangerous free fall.
Right now, there are new stories almost daily about how assisted suicide is increasingly becoming a temptation for Canadians.
For more than 40 years, the Toronto-based [pro-assisted suicide] group Dying with Dignity has been working with the express intent of “helping people across Canada avoid unwanted suffering.” Since suffering is usually unwanted and it is natural to seek to avoid it, this aim has found great resonance within our culture.
Some key court cases over the years introduced the public to sympathetic stories of Canadians suffering severe illnesses. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that laws preventing physician-assisted suicide stifled, ironically enough, the Charter-affirmed right to “life, liberty, and security of the person.” An exemption was subsequently added to the Criminal Code to say that no medical or nurse practitioner commits an offence in facilitating suicide so long as the patient satisfies the criteria.
Gradually, these criteria were expanded on the principle of equality. Assisted suicide became an option both for those whose deaths are deemed “reasonably foreseeable” and those whose deaths are not. The criteria that were expanded to include Canadians with physical disabilities will, beginning March 17, 2023, extend to those whose sole underlying condition is a mental illness.
Once assisted suicide became an accepted means to “avoiding unwanted suffering,” it became unclear why anyone should be excluded from having the option. Assisted suicide is popular because it has been advanced ostensibly on the principles of life, liberty, and equality, combined with the belief that whatever a person wants is good and whatever a person does not want is bad.
Those advancing assisted suicide in our society think they are doing something good. And, it is for this reason that I so appreciate the challenge in your book “Losing Our Dignity,” that we learn to charitably challenge and engage on the level of differing conceptions of the good to recover the true meaning of human dignity and equality.
What has happened specifically with disability and assisted suicide in Canada?
In 1993, a 12-year-old girl named Tracy Latimer was deliberately killed by her father in his pickup truck using carbon monoxide poisoning. Robert Latimer was reportedly an ordinary man, “a typical Prairie farmer [who was] hardworking, cleanliving, and self-reliant.” His wife and three younger children were at church the morning he claimed to have mercifully killed his daughter who had cerebral palsy. As he was being convicted of murder, Mr. Latimer told the court, “I still feel I did what was right. I don't think you people are being human.”
Despite an obvious lack of consent from the vulnerable child, the then-executive director of Dying with Dignity agreed. Marilynne Seguin told The New York Times it was “quite unconscionable” to add a 10-year punishment after the Latimers had, as she put it, lived under a sentence during the 12 years of Tracy’s life.
There is no justification for comparing living with a person who has a disability to facing prosecution under a criminal sentence. This is dehumanization, full stop.
Canadians living with disabilities and those who love them remember the Latimer case vividly. It haunts us, particularly since Mr. Latimer was granted full parole in 2010.
As my friend Taylor Hyatt wrote, “Hearing about Tracy’s fate sent shivers down my spine… and years later, it still does. The sense of kinship I felt with her, and the disgust I felt at the thought of her murder, has stayed with me. If I had to put it all into words, it would read something like, ‘She’s like me, and her father resented having to care for her and feared for her future so much that he killed her.’”
Disability rights advocates have been sounding the alarm about how Canada is “creating a shortcut to an assisted death for people with disabilities who are not dying” in defiance of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As these advocates warn, allowing assisted suicide on the basis on “an impairment” leads to “discrimination and social devaluation.”
Legalizing assisted suicide on the basis of disability sends the message that life with a disability may not be worth living. And since doctors consistently rate the quality of life of their patients with disabilities lower than [the patients] themselves would, it is no wonder that assisted suicide is harming the doctor-patient relationship.
What’s next? I've heard rumors about euthanasia for newborns and assisted suicide for minors without parental consent.
The rumor which you’ve heard comes from Dr. Louis Roy’s address before a parliamentary committee on October 7, 2022. Speaking on behalf of the Quebec College of Physicians, he suggested euthanasia for babies “from zero to 1-year-old who are born with severe deformations, [with] very grave and severe medical syndromes, [and] whose life expectancy and level of suffering are such that it would make sense to ensure they do not suffer.”
That Canadians are now hearing more about the possible legalization of infanticide than about new developments and investment in perinatal palliative care betrays a lack of funding, imagination, and support for families. We must do better.
Anyone who has received a challenging diagnosis or accompanied someone who has knows the flood of legitimate emotions and concerns that come with this news. The stories of families who have lived this experience are of immense value here. With sensitivity and credibility, these families bear witness to the true meaning of compassion.
As for assisted suicide for minors, this completely undermines the principle of informed consent on which the past legal rulings were made. Soon those we do not yet allow to elect our government may be allowed to elect to have an adult prematurely end their lives. Unfortunately, as long as our society puts forward assisted suicide as a response to suffering, how can we persuade teenagers (who also suffer a lot) that it is not for them?
You recently had an article in Law & Liberty on the Orwellian nature of all of this. Can you summarize your central argument?
We know George Orwell was particularly concerned about how language can corrupt thought. I began the piece by tracing the evolving euphemisms for assisted suicide. The practice is now referred to by governments, journalists, and civil society simply as—MAID, standing for “medical assistance in dying.”
I will tell you a story that highlights the obfuscation: A doctor recently told me about a patient of his who was living with ALS. Endeavoring to support him, the man’s family dialed a number for MAID. Soon enough, a team of “MAID assessors” showed up to his home to gauge the man’s eligibility for a physician-assisted suicide. The family was aghast because they had thought that they were phoning for a live-in maid to provide homecare services to their family member. The man himself, upon realizing the situation, was dejected and traumatized.
In the piece, I also highlighted how the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is now recommending the falsification of medical records by mandating the listing of alternate causes for all euthanasia deaths.
Despite acknowledging that “MAID [involves] administer[ing] medications that cause a patient’s death,” the College instructs, “When completing the medical certificate of death, physicians: must list the illness, disease, or disability leading to the request for MAID as the cause of death; and must not make any reference to MAID or the medications administered on the certificate.”
In addition to the problems surrounding falsification of records, I would add the problem of referring to the combination of midazolam, propofol, and rocuronium used with lethal intent and effect as “medicine.” For example, a government-funded “Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) Activity Book” geared to children refers to the substances causing death as “medicine” 11 times in 30 pages. On a purely practical level, imagine trying to convince a kid to take their medicine after they have been told that medicines can be used to cause death.
Does the Church's vision of nonviolent health care and fundamental human equality have a chance of breaking through here? Might this kind of freefall into horribleness cause wide swaths of Canadians to look for a different model of caring for the sick and disabled?
How much we can learn from the life of Christ, in which the Church’s whole moral vision is anchored. Amidst the greatest suffering of Jesus’ life, his soul was deeply grieved and he implored his friends to stay at his side and remain vigilant. As any one of us would do, he prayed to be spared if possible. Yet, in the same breath, he preferred the will of God.
During the Eucharistic prayer, we hear the words, "At the time he was betrayed and entered willingly into his Passion..." Each Mass, we have the opportunity to ponder the mystery and audacious character of that willingness.
Next, we have the saints who continually expand our horizons. How captivated the world was when an ailing John Paul II appeared to pilgrims from his window for what would be the last time, showing us you can bless others without speaking.
How mysteriously attracted the world was by Mother Teresa who touched and held the sick and dying, willing to love them until it hurt.
Against his family’s wishes, Aloysius Gonzaga, opted to forsake an affluent lifestyle and volunteer at a hospital during an epidemic. Speaking of his example, Pope Francis said, “Only in inner silence can one grasp and distinguish the voice of conscience from the voices of selfishness and hedonism.”
And Camillus de Lellis, whose dramatic conversion led him to care for the sick leaves with us the question he heard from the Cross: "Why are you afraid? Do you not realize that this is not your work but mine?"
Every historic act of moral heroism has an equivalent new expression waiting to be found in our own day. This is our task, and it demands of us new forms of spiritual and cultural entrepreneurship. And the particular circumstances of our times and communities are not to be lamented, but leveraged.
For example, a man who applied for assisted suicide out of fear of homelessness (and was approved) revoked his request after more than a thousand strangers crowdfunded $60,000 to support him. Amir Farsoud told reporters, “I’m a different person. The first time we spoke, I had nothing but darkness, misery, stress and hopelessness. Now I have all the opposite of those things.”
To care and to be cared for amid the trials of life will always be the more beautiful way. And anyone who has seen someone care for another with tenderness, patience, kindness, and endurance cannot help but be moved by this witness of true presence.
Hopefully, like Christ, we can come to love those who are in the world until the end.