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Experts claim euthanasia law in Canada has “discriminatory impact” on people with disabilities

As Canada is set to expand its euthanasia laws to allow assisted suicide and euthanasia forexclusively mental health reasons from next year, experts are increasingly drawing attention to the “discriminatory impact” of Canada’s euthanasia legislation.

Canada has one of the most permissive euthanasia laws in the world where any Canadian adult with a disability can choose euthanasia. The law, as enacted in 2016, required that patients were terminally ill, but this requirement has since been removed, widening access. While the law allows for assisted suicide or euthanasia, almost all medically assisted deaths are euthanasia.

Now, with over 10,000 deaths from euthanasia in Canada in 2021, a 32% increase from the previous year and accounting for 3.3% of all deaths in Canada, experts are calling into question the dangerous euthanasia legislation.

Discriminatory impact on people with disabilities

In particular, experts have drawn attention to the impact that this legislation has on people with disabilities. Marie-Claude Landry, the head of Canada’s Human Rights Commission said that Euthanasia “cannot be a default for Canada’s failure to fulfill its human rights obligations”.

Landry said she shares the “grave concern” voiced by three U.N. human rights experts, who wrote that Canada’s euthanasia law appeared to violate the agency’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They said the law had a “discriminatory impact” on disabled people and was inconsistent with Canada’s obligations to uphold international human rights standards.

Tim Stainton, director of the Canadian Institute for Inclusion and Citizenship at the University of British Columbia, described Canada’s law as “probably the biggest existential threat to disabled people since the Nazis’ program in Germany in the 1930s”.

Theresia Degener, a professor of law and disability studies at the Protestant University for Applied Sciences in northwestern Germany, said allowing euthanasia based exclusively on disability was a clear human rights violation.

She said: “The implication of (Canada’s) law is that a life with disability is automatically less worth living and that in some cases, death is preferable.”

Lack of safeguards

The euthanasia laws in Canada lack many of the safeguards found in other countries. Canada is the only country which permits nurses, not just doctors to end their patients’ lives. In Ontario and Quebec, doctors are explicitly instructed not to indicate on death certificates if people died from euthanasia.

In Belgium doctors are advised to avoid mentioning euthanasia since it could be interpreted as medical advice, and in Victoria, Australia, doctors are forbidden from raising the topic of euthanasia with their patients. However, there is no such restriction in Canada. The association of Canadian health professionals who provide euthanasia tells physicians and nurses to inform patients if they might qualify to be killed, as one of their possible “clinical care options.”

Furthermore, Canadian patients are not required to have exhausted all treatment alternatives before seeking euthanasia, as is the case in Belgium and the Netherlands.

In 2018, Roger Foley, a man with a chronic neurological disease, recorded hospital staff offering him an assisted suicide despite him being clear that he wanted assistance to live at home and not to end his life.

In 2020, an elderly woman in Canada was euthanised to avoid having to live through another COVID-19 lockdown.

Despite these problems, Canada is set to permit euthanasia on mental health grounds alone from next year

Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “While many of those who advocate for assisted suicide and euthanasia have good intentions, in the real world, the harms caused by this kind of legislation is clear. Euthanasia and assisted suicide laws clearly devalue the lives of people with disabilities and otherwise vulnerable, who the law does not regard as worthy of the same protections as everyone else.”

“The problems are not a bug arising from the law, but a feature of it. Once euthanasia and assisted suicide are permitted on the grounds of alleviation of suffering, there are no logical grounds for restricting it only to people who are terminally ill, or those with disabilities. Anyone can be suffering at any stage of their lives for all sorts of reasons. It should come as no surprise that the law expands to cover more and more people. Cases of coercion and subtle pressure to choose assisted suicide or euthanasia will increase and many will go undetected.”

“The only hope is that Canada will eventually see the error of its ways and recognise the dignity of its own citizens. Hopefully, other countries which have not made assisted suicide and euthanasia legal such as the UK, will recognise these dangers and continue to provide legal protection for the most vulnerable in our society from assisted suicide and euthanasia.”

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