Public can weigh in on changes to law governing medically assisted dying

On Wednesday, as the federal-provincial-territorial meeting of ministers responsible for justice and public safety wrapped up in Victoria, Justice Minister David Lametti addressed the issue of medical assistance in dying.

Lametti said it was urgent to review Canada’s medical assistance in dying framework and Canada’s next steps to respond to the Superior Court of Quebec’s September 2019 ruling. The Quebec court rejected a restriction in the federal law that said only terminally ill patients have access to medically assisted dying.

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On Jan. 12, the federal government launched online public consultations to gather Canadians’ thoughts on key issues related to MAID, such as eligibility, safeguards and advance requests.

“We have already received an incredible number of responses, more than 200,000 thus far,” Lametti said.

The minister hopes to have draft legislation ready in February. The government “hasn’t ruled out” asking for an extension but first wants to gauge the potential for consensus on passing draft legislation, he said.

In an earlier interview, Lametti suggested that while many of the questions being asked of Canadians in consultations and in an online questionnaire were debated extensively in 2015, public opinion has evolved so much since the law went into effect in June 2016.

“What exists now that didn’t exist in 2016 is a group of highly professional, highly caring and sensitive practitioners who have put into place practices for medical assistance in dying,” Lametti said.

“We have four years of their collective experience,” he said. “And none of that was there before and I think there is a great deal of acceptance now also amongst providers.” Much of the fear expressed before the law was introduced hasn’t been borne out, he said.

The public consultations on access to medical assistance in dying will assess whether in addition to amending the law to respond to the court, there is sufficient consensus on other issues to include them as part of that step.

Roundtables conducted by Lametti, Health Minister Patty Hajdu, and Carla Qualtrough, the minister responsible for the inclusion of people with disabilities, with service providers and experts in the field took place last week in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary.

The public has until Jan. 27 to share views in an online questionnaire. As of Wednesday afternoon it had received 229,281 responses.

The questions and consultations are meant to help the government strike a balance between honouring the personal wishes of people to choose a peaceful and painless death, while protecting those who feel vulnerable, including Canadians with disabilities and seniors.

“We do have to strike an appropriate balance,” Lametti said, noting that there is “a sector of the population that sees itself as being vulnerable to being influenced.”

“We’ve added in the questionnaire a couple of kind of specific advanced directives where we think there might be a consensus right now that we could add to the law immediately,” he said.

Lametti cited the case of Halifax’s Audrey Parker, 57, who was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer that had spread to her brain. She chose to die with medical assistance in the fall of 2018, earlier than she wanted, rather than find herself incapacitated and unable to give late-stage consent for a peaceful and pain-free death.

The questionnaire asks people to consider whether someone diagnosis of a disease that has a known progress, someone with Alzheimer’s disease for example, should be able to prepare an advance directive to apply later.

If there’s sufficient consensus on the issues, Lametti said, it could be dealt with in the coming round of amendments, rather than waiting for the parliamentary review.

“So we’re really just polling Canadians as best as we can to see if there’s a societal consensus on those other issues,” said Lametti. “Otherwise we have a five-year review that’s going to start in June on those larger questions. We still plan to go ahead on that.”

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