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COLUMN: Medical assistance in dying law returning to parliament

North Delta Reporter - 2/18/2020

The issue of medical assistance in dying (MAiD) is once again about to be discussed on the floor of the House of Commons in Ottawa. As Minister of Disability Inclusion, I am mandated to work with the Ministers of Health and Justice to ensure that the voices of persons with disabilities are heard in this process, and to ensure that we do nothing that in any way devalues the lives of — or further stigmatizes — persons with a disability.

As the MP for Delta, I have heard from many constituents on this issue. It is a deeply personal, emotional and divisive topic.

By way of background, in 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the sections of the Criminal Code that made assisted suicide illegal, and gave the federal government a very short amount of time to come up with a law that legalized assisted suicide in Canada. In 2016, the federal law on MAiD came into effect.

This law created an "end of life" regime which limited access to MAiD to individuals with grievous conditions that were irreversible, who were suffering intolerably, and whose deaths were reasonably foreseeable. A number of specific eligibility criteria were put into place, along with significant procedural safeguards.

The objective of the law was to ensure that the personal autonomy rights of every individual were protected while at the same time ensuring that vulnerable persons were also protected. Embedded in the law is the right for medical practitioners to conscientiously object. Also embedded is a mandatory five-year parliamentary review of the entire law, which is set to begin this June.

At the time, many believed that the law did not go far enough — that our approach was too cautious, and that the government had not met the requirements set by the Supreme Court of Canada. Others believed that the law had gone too far.

Provincial governments are responsible for the provision of MAiD within their provincial health care systems. In B.C., the provincial government has determined the circumstances under which an organization must provide MAiD, which include the extent to which the organization receives public funding.

In September 2019, a Quebec Superior Court found that it is unconstitutional to limit the availability of MAiD to people who are near death. Once again, the federal government was given a short timeline to change the law. The court-imposed deadline is March 11, 2020.

Over the past month, we have been holding consultations across the country to seek advice on a path forward that would respect the decision of the court. There is also an online survey that has received almost 300,000 responses. The feedback has been thoughtful, compassionate and candid. We are at the beginning of a conversation that starts with a more narrow focus to address the Quebec court decision, and will continue into a broader discussion within the context of the upcoming parliamentary review.

Here in Delta — and across Canada — I have heard from medical practitioners who have performed MAiD and medical practitioners who conscientiously object; families that have been through the experience of their loved one accessing MAiD and individuals who are frustrated that they were not eligible for MAiD; human rights organizations concerned that the equality rights of persons with disabilities are in jeopardy and human rights organizations concerned that the personal autonomy rights of persons with disabilities are being frustrated. I have spoken with faith leaders, social workers, nurse practitioners, ethicists, doctors, social scientists, and self-advocates. I have heard heartbreaking stories of family grief and peace. I have heard examples of where the system has supported some people, and of where the system has completely failed others.

This is the backdrop. The overall message that I have heard in Delta and across the country has been one of caution and compassion. There are many questions yet to be answered.

The court deadline is March 11, 2020. We need to figure out as a country how to move forward in a way that continues to recognize personal autonomy, protect vulnerable persons, respect conscientious objections, and does not further stigmatize or marginalize people who are elderly, ill or have some form of disability.

Here in Delta, I have heard loud and clear that you want to be engaged and heard on this issue. Moving forward, please continue to reach out to me — and I will do the same. I will be holding local consultations to feed into the broader parliamentary review as well.

Carla Qualtrough is the Member of Parliament for Delta and Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion.

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