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Canada delays plans to make euthanasia on the grounds of mental illness alone legal

The Canadian Government has delayed plans to make euthanasia and assisted suicide legal on the grounds of mental illness alone. 

In December 2022, the Government announced their plan to introduce legislation enabling assisted suicide and euthanasia for those whose sole underlying medical condition is a mental illness. This legislation was introduced in 2023, and the law was expected to come into force in March 2024.

However, late last month the Canadian Health Minister Mark Holland announced that “the system is at this time not ready” to make euthanasia and assisted suicide legal on the grounds of mental illness alone.

Yesterday, following the announcement, legislation was introduced so that euthanasia and assisted suicide would be legal on the grounds of mental health alone in March 2027.

Not prepared for the change in law

“We need more time”, Holland said. “Although the curriculum is present, although the guidelines are set, there has not been enough time for people to be trained on them, and provinces and territories are saying their systems are not ready and need more time”.

A special joint committee was created in April 2021, which was subsequently directed to assess the “degree of preparedness attained for a safe and adequate application of [euthanasia and assisted suicide] where mental disorder is the sole underlying medical condition”. The report from the committee raised several concerns about the proposed law change on the basis of testimonies from healthcare professionals including psychiatrists. 

These concerns included the difficulty of accurately predicting the long-term prognosis of a person with a mental disorder, the challenge of distinguishing between a “reasoned wish to die” and suicidality, and the availability of enough trained practitioners, especially psychiatrists, to provide assessments for applicants.

Canadian legislation on assisted suicide has rapidly expanded since its introduction.

In 2021, the Canadian Parliament repealed the requirement that the natural death of those applying for assisted suicide be “reasonably foreseeable”. This took place only five years after the original legislation allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide was passed in 2016. 

Since then, the numbers of people ending their lives by assisted suicide or euthanasia have increased significantly. In 2022, the number of people who ended their lives by euthanasia or assisted suicide increased by 31.2% from the previous year, accounting for 4.1% of all deaths in Canada.

According to the latest report on assisted suicide and euthanasia from Health Canada, 13,241 people ended their lives by euthanasia or assisted suicide in 2022. There were 3,149 more deaths than in 2021, which had also seen a more than 30% increase from the year before.

Compared to the previous year, the number of instances of euthanasia or assisted suicide in which death of the person was not “reasonably foreseeable” more than doubled.

A total of 44,958 people have ended their lives by assisted suicide or euthanasia in Canada since legislation making it legal was passed in 2016.

Non-medical concerns 

In 2022, as in 2021, a large percentage of people who ended their lives in Canada through euthanasia or assisted suicide did so for non-medical reasons.

According to the report, 86.3% of individuals requesting assisted suicide or euthanasia in 2022 cited “the loss of ability to engage in meaningful activities” and 81.9% cited the “loss of ability to perform activities of daily living” among their reasons for wanting to die.

17.1% cited loneliness as their reason for wanting to end their lives, while 35.3% were concerned about being a “burden on family, friends or caregivers”.

Spokesperson for Right To Life UK Catherine Robinson said: “The euthanasia system in Canada is a disaster and extending it to people on the grounds of mental illness alone would have only made things worse”.

“Importantly, as the joint committee discovered, it is impossible to distinguish between a ‘reasoned wish to die’ and suicidality. This is because there is no real difference. Delaying euthanasia on the grounds of mental illness alone will not change this fact, and the whole idea should be dropped. People with mental illnesses need support and assistance to live, not to die”.

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