In Canada, Natural Death Is Slowly Being Replaced by Doctor-Assisted Suicide
One in 14 deaths in the province of Quebec will be officially sanctioned and administered suicides by the end of 2023 if current rates persist.
Doctor-assisted suicide is no longer being treated as a last resort in some parts of Canada, according to a new report, with one province now reporting that as many as 7 percent of all deaths there will soon be at the hands of doctors or other health care practitioners charged with caring for their patients.
The practice has become so common that a commission that reports to the legislature in Canada, the End of Life Care Commission, or Commission sur les soins de fin de vie, sent a memo to doctors in the province reminding them Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying law is intended only for patients with serious and incurable diseases or those suffering from irreversible declines in their conditions.
“We see, more and more, that the cases receiving medical aid in dying are approaching the limits of the law,” the head of the commission, Michel Bureau, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “We’re now no longer dealing with an exceptional treatment, but a treatment that is very frequent.”
If current rates continue, more than one in 14 deaths in Quebec will be doctor-assisted by the end of the year. Dr. Bureau notes that the rate is higher than any other place that allows the practice — 4.5 times the rate of Switzerland and three times as high as in Belgium. The rate is twice as high as in neighboring Ontario, he said.
Euthanasia become legal in Canada in 2016 with the passage of the Medical Assistance in Dying law, which allowed patients who have serious and incurable diseases, illnesses, or disabilities to seek a doctor’s help in committing suicide. Following a series of court decisions, the law was amended in 2021 to add mental illnesses to the list of approved conditions beginning in 2024.
For the assistance to be approved, at least two doctors must verify that the patient is in an “advanced state of irreversible decline” or is “enduring an intolerable physical or psychological suffering that cannot be alleviated under conditions the person considers acceptable.”
The number of people seeking that assistance has risen steadily in recent years across all provinces, but its growth has been fastest in Quebec. Nationally, there were some 10,064 officially sanctioned suicides in the country, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in 2021, a 32 percent increase from the number in 2020. Since the law was passed, more than 31,664 Canadians have opted to voluntarily end their lives.
In Quebec, doctor-assisted deaths accounted for 4.7 percent of all deaths in 2021. In 2022, that number rose to 6.1 percent, according to provincial statistics, and at the current pace, it will reach more than 7 percent by the end of the year, Dr. Bureau told the CBC. Doctors in the province, he said, are under increasing pressure from elderly patients who say they are ready to die, but their conditions do not qualify them for the suicide route.
“It’s no longer just terminal cancer, there are all kinds of illnesses — and that’s very good, but it requires a lot of rigor from doctors to ensure they stay within the limits of the law,” Dr. Bureau said. “Medical aid in dying is not there to replace natural death.”