Proposed adjustments to assisted-dying legislation make demise a viable possibility for individuals with disabilities, advocate fears

Legislation that would expand access to medical assistance when dying is a step backwards to help people with disabilities, says a BC lawyer.

Bill C-7 was recently passed in the House of Commons and is currently under discussion in the Senate ahead of tomorrow’s court deadline.

The bill was introduced earlier this year in response to a September 2019 ruling by the Quebec Supreme Court that found that the legal requirement for attaining a doctor-assisted death – that the person seeking it must be a “reasonably foreseeable” must be exposed to natural death – is unconstitutional.

The bill suggests removing this requirement. It also disqualifies those whose only underlying condition is mental illness from attaining an assisted death.

Spring Hawes, former Invermere alderman and co-founder of Dignity Denied, says the bill is problematic.

It has the potential to create situations where people with disabilities could be offered medically assisted death before or at the same time as those other benefits are offered to lead healthy and fulfilling lives, she said.

“Instead of funding and making life a possible and viable choice for many people, we entertain this option of asking them if they want to die, and it’s very scary,” said Hawes, who has a spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair .

“There is a danger that offering someone to die will be viewed as a favor, when that person really just needs access to better care, better support, or the things they need to live well.”

Two-thirds of disabled people live in poverty or cannot afford their medication, and people with disabilities are more likely to experience violence than the working population, she said. Many have no barrier-free apartments or means of transport.

According to Hawes, studies show that when offered this support, people with disabilities have a very high standard and satisfaction with their quality of life.

A few months after her spinal cord injury, Hawes said she could not move her arms and had a feeding tube.

“I had no way of knowing or appreciating how my life might turn out. If someone had come and offered me MAID at that point, I would have accepted it really well,” said Hawes of CBC’s The Early Edition.

Hawes says this “deep and critical” calculation should not be rushed.

The Senate will likely discuss many amendments, the expert says

More than 300 disability groups in Canada are opposed to the change, and the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee has pre-examined the bill because of its tight schedule.

It received 86 written contributions and heard from 81 witnesses, including ministers, regulators, advocacy groups, lawyers, doctors, and other stakeholders.

That committee released a report last week summarizing the views heard from witnesses, including concerns about compliance with the Charter of Rights, safeguards to protect the vulnerable, and access to adequate health and support services.

The report said the committee heard from major national disability organizations arguing that the elimination of “reasonably foreseeable natural death” would “single out” disability in violation of the Charter’s equality rights. They said that a constitutional challenge would likely arise if the law were passed.

On Monday, the senators voiced conflicting views on whether the law is constitutional, does enough to protect people with disabilities, should be changed, and whether it really needs to be addressed this week.

Trudo Lemmens, professor and Scholl Chair of Health Law and Policy at the University of Toronto, said the Senate is likely to consider many proposed changes to the bill.

Federal law’s criteria for a reasonable, foreseeable death can be interpreted differently across the country, he said. For example, the interpretation in BC is broader than that in Quebec.

“What we are now seeing at Senate level is that disability organizations in particular, but also law, ethical and medical experts are saying, ‘Well, we are now converting a procedure that is supposed to facilitate the dying process in some form, therapy for ailments, but only for people with disabilities and chronic diseases, “said Lemmens.

Targeting people with disabilities in this way is stigmatizing because it sends the message that life with disabilities is “more unbearable and perhaps less worth living”.

“The concern that has been expressed is that while people in the system, medical system and social assistance system do not have adequate support for people with disabilities, they are being offered a quick path to an early death,” he said.

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