Canada’s Controversial New Assisted Suicide Law: Ethics and Legal Questions

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For the last seven centuries, the western world has strongly opposed any kind of suicide or suicide assistance. But euthanasia has become accepted in the last 20 years in countries of Europe, such as Belgium, Holland and Albania. Switzerland made assisted suicide legal in 1942.

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But the Swiss law clearly states: “Whoever, from selfish motives, induces another to commit suicide or assists him therein shall be punished, if the suicide was successful or attempted, by confinement in a penitentiary for not more than five years or by imprisonment.” (Source: Article 115 of the Penal Code of Switzerland) Selfish motives, being the key words here.

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In the USA, only five states allow “death with dignity“, and a sixth leaves physician-assisted death in the hands of the Supreme Court Ruling.

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Within the past year alone, Canada has passed a new legislation allowing people to apply for assisted suicide. However, there are many ethical and legal questions as no provincial standards are in place yet, and the language about assisted death keeps changing. Here’s what we know for now:

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  • Doctors and healthcare providers in Canada are allowed to assist in some patient’s deaths, but provinces are applying this law differently and regulating it according to their own legislation.

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  • Quebec was the first province to implement the new laws after prime minister Justin Trudeau gave his stamp of approval. “It’s a deeply personal issue that affects all of us and our families,” Trudeau stated.

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  • In Ontario, there is a referral service in place for patients who need to connect with a doctor who can assist with their death. In the few months after the law was passed, many people in the province have availed themselves of the service.

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Specifics of the New Law

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According to this new assisted suicide law, a resident of Canada can only qualify if they have consented fully. Furthermore, they must be a “competent adult older than 19 years of age” who suffers from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition.” For those who qualify, doctors are allowed—but should never be forced or feel coerced or compelled—to help a person die.

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The Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.

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Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia

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The above description seems very vague and general. Some deaths are not always foreseeable, while other illnesses may be cured without anyone knowing of the definite possibility of this occurring.

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Are There Ethical Safeguards In Place?

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Under Canadian federal law, the patient must request for assisted death by stating it in writing. That document must then be signed by no less than two witnesses, who are not giving the patient medical or personal care. They must also not be a beneficiary of the patient’s will.

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Afterwards, it is up to two physicians or health practitioners to evaluate this document and to then decide whether or not the patient is eligible to receive help dying.

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Controversy and Legal Questions

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With some patients undergoing this process, it could take a few years to find whether or not they qualify for such a law. By that time, some fear they may try to take their own lives instead.

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The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada (ASC) is one such group that believes that those with an illness like Alzheimer’s aren’t fully able to give their consent on such a matter. Although the disease is incurable and will worsen over time, they remain vulnerable and at the mercy of others, so into which category do patients with this disorder fall?

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In such cases, patients feel trapped—they aren’t suffering a terminal illness, but they don’t feel the quality of their lives will improve at any time. Still, their hands (and fate) are tied to do anything about it. Some people believe that the law could be misinterpreted to exclude the very people in Canada who tried to establish it in the first place.

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Then, there is the Catholic Church’s stance on the matter. Many believe such a legislation is a threat to family-oriented life around the entire planet. Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast has even gone as far as to call assisted suicide a “morally great evil.”

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