Experts see Canada’s euthanasia laws as a threat to people with disabilities

This photo provided by Gary Nichols shows him, right, with his brother, Alan, on the eve of his euthanasia in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, in July 2019. Alan submitted a request for euthanasia and he was killed , despite concerns raised by his family and a nurse practitioner. Nichols’ family reported the case to police and health authorities, arguing that he lacked the ability to understand the process and was not in unbearable pain – among the conditions required for euthanasia. “Alan was basically put to death,” says his brother, Gary. Credit: Courtesy of Gary Nichols via AP

Alan Nichols had a history of depression and other medical issues, but none were life-threatening. When the 61-year-old Canadian was hospitalized in June 2019 over fears he was suicidal, he asked his brother to “get him out” as soon as possible.

Within a month, Nichols submitted a request for euthanasia and he was killed, despite concerns raised by his family and a nurse practitioner.

His request for euthanasia listed only one health condition as the reason for his request to die: hearing loss.

Nichols’ family reported the case to police and health authorities, arguing that he lacked the capacity to understand the process and was not in unbearable pain – among the requirements for euthanasia.

“Alan was basically put to death,” his brother Gary Nichols said.

Disability experts say the story is not unique to Canada, which has arguably the most permissive euthanasia rules in the world, allowing severely disabled people to choose to be killed in the absence of any other medical problem.

Many Canadians support euthanasia and advocacy group Dying With Dignity says the procedure is “compassionate” to end suffering. But human rights advocates say the country’s regulations lack necessary safeguards, devalue the lives of people with disabilities and encourage doctors and health workers to suggest the procedure to those who wouldn’t otherwise consider it.

Equally troubling, advocates say, are cases in which people have sought to be killed because they did not receive adequate government support to live.

Canada is set to expand access to euthanasia next year, but these advocates say the system now deserves closer scrutiny.

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

Canadian Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, meanwhile, said the euthanasia law “recognizes the rights of all people…as well as the inherent and equal value of every life.”

Euthanasia, where doctors use drugs to kill patients, is legal in seven countries – Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain – as well as in several states in Australia. Other jurisdictions, including several US states, allow assisted suicide, where patients take the deadly drug themselves.

Canada’s original 2016 euthanasia law granted the procedure to people aged 18 and over who met several conditions, including a “grievous and irremediable” medical condition causing unbearable suffering, and whose death was reasonably foreseeable. Lawmakers later removed the restriction that death was imminent, a move that critics say removed a key safeguard.

Unlike other countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legal for two decades, Canada does not have monthly commissions to review potentially troubling cases.

There is also no restriction on doctors suggesting euthanasia to patients who have not already requested it, a practice explicitly prohibited elsewhere.

People who request euthanasia in Canada are also not required to have exhausted all their treatment options, as is the case in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Experts see Canada's euthanasia laws as a threat to people with disabilities

This image shows part of a Medical Euthanasia Request Form completed by Alan Nichols of Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. His petition listed a single medical condition as the reason for his death request: hearing loss. Current law allows severely disabled people to choose to be killed in the absence of any other medical condition. Credit: Courtesy of Gary Nichols via AP

Under current law, any adult with a serious illness, disease or disability can ask to be killed.

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

“The implication of Canadian law is that a life with a disability is automatically less worth living and in some cases death is preferable,” she said.

After Alan Nichols died, his family turned themselves in to police, but in March an officer told the family that documents showed he “did meet the criteria” for euthanasia.

In one of the euthanasia assessments filed by a nurse practitioner prior to Nichols’ death, she noted his history of seizures, frailty and “stunted growth”.

Trudo Lemmens, chair of health law and policy at the University of Toronto, said it was “amazing” that authorities concluded Nichols’ death was justified.

Meanwhile, some Canadians with disabilities have chosen to be killed in the face of mounting bills.

Before being euthanized in August 2019 at age 41, Sean Tagert struggled to get the round-the-clock care he needed. The government provided Tagert, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, with 16 hours of daily care at his home in Powell River, British Columbia. He spent about 264 Canadian dollars ($206) a day to cover the other eight hours.

Health authorities offered Tagert a move to an institution, but he refused, saying he would be too far away from his young son.

“I know I’m asking for change,” Tagert wrote in a Facebook post before his death. “I just didn’t realize that was an unacceptable thing to do.”

Stainton, a professor at the University of British Columbia, pointed out that no province or territory provides disability benefit income above the poverty line. In some areas, he said it was as low as CA$850 ($662) a month, less than half the amount the government provided for people unable to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Duclos, the national health minister, told The Associated Press he could not comment on specific cases but said all jurisdictions had a range of policies to support people with disabilities. He acknowledged “disparities in access to services and supports across the country.”

As assisted dying legislation expands globally – lawmakers are due to debate it in Britain and the Portuguese parliament recently backed a euthanasia bill – some experts say the system in Canada deserves closer examination.

Next year, Canada is set to allow people to be killed exclusively for mental health reasons. It also plans to extend euthanasia to “mature” minors, that is to say those under 18 who meet the same conditions as adults.

Landry, Canada’s human rights commissioner, said politicians should listen to the concerns of people facing hardship who believe euthanasia is their only option.

“At a time when we recognize the right to die with dignity, we must do more to guarantee the right to live with dignity,” she said.


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