The Contentious Case of Euthanasia in Canada: The Concerns of Human Rights Experts and the Handicapped

14/10/2022

In early October 2022, the CBC news daily reported the sad story of a young woman in Manitoba, suffering from ALS who resolved to apply for euthanasia due to the unavailability of home care. She was able to bear her condition even if it was gradually worsening and would have liked to live longer. Nancy Hansen, a lecturer at Manitoba University, specialised in studying handicap, has concerns about the manner in which euthanasia is offered to people confronted with handicap.

Already last August, the APNewsn (AP) press agency relayed the concerns of experts who are alarmed at the consequences of the Canadian law on euthanasia concerning the rights of the handicapped. In a lengthy study, several cases were reported of handicapped people being led to euthanasia. Alan Nichols a 61-year-old man with a previous history of depression was admitted into hospital in 2019 due to suicidal tendencies. A month later he was euthanised. The reason given was his “Loss of hearing”. His family registered a complaint against this “execution”. The hospital claimed that Alan Nichols had made a valid request for euthanasia and that, in accordance with the private will of the patient, he was under no obligation to inform his next of kin or to include them in the discussions on his treatment.

The witness account by Roger Foley is equally startling. This 45-year-old man, admitted into hospital in London, Ontario, was suffering from a degenerative disease. Alarmed by the fact that members of staff were mentioning the possibility of euthanasia, he started to secretly record some of their conversations. In a recording obtained by the AP, the Director of Ethics at the hospital informed Foley that his hospital stay would cost “1500 dollars per day”. When questioned about the plan for his long-term treatment, the “Ethics” Director merely replied that his personal mission was limited to simply offering him “the possibility of being able to access assisted death.” However Mr. Foley declared that he had never mentioned euthanasia previously. The hospital then sidestepped, claiming the absence of any prohibition for its personnel to raise the question. In 2020, the patient then applied to the representatives of the Human Rights Justice Commission from his hospital bed via Zoom. He pleaded with them not to extend the legislation on medical termination, and denounced the fact that “it is easier to access medical termination than safe and appropriate life support measures.”

The review also mentions Canadians who request euthanasia for financial reasons. Before being euthanised in August 2019 at 41 years of age, Sean Tagert had difficulty obtaining the medical care he needed 24 hours per day. Despite his suffering from ALS, the government would only cover 16 hours of care per day. He had to fund the remaining 8 hours himself. In the end, he was unable to raise the funds required to finance the specialist medical equipment he needed.

Heidi Janz, the Deputy Assistant professor of ethics for the handicapped at the University of Alberta, stated that ”a handicapped person in Canada has to overcome so many obstacles in order to obtain support, that it is often enough to tip the balance” and lead to euthanasia. A professor at the University of British-Columbia, Mr Stainton, stresses that no province or territory provides benefits for handicap services greater than the poverty threshold. In certain regions, it reaches 850 $ CA (662 $) per month – less than half the amount which the government provided to people unable to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contrary to the few nations which have legalised euthanasia such as Belgium and Holland, Canada has not established any verification commission for examining contentious cases either beforehand or subsequently. Additionally, Canadian patients are not required to have exhausted all other treatments. The survey also underlines that the Canadian Association of Health Professionals who conduct euthanasia requires doctors and paramedics to inform patients that they are eligible for euthanasia even if they have not asked for it.

Whereas Canada is currently examining the possibility of extending access to euthanasia in 2023 to those suffering from mental disorders, those defending the handicapped and Human Rights are claiming that the system now merits a more detailed study. Euthanasia “cannot be the default practice due to the shortfall of Canada with respect to its obligations towards human rights“, according to Marie-Claude Landry, President of the Human Rights Commission. She shares the “Deep concern expressed last year by three Human Rights experts at the UNO, in a common statement concerning the Canadian law: “Handicap should never be the reason for ending a life” These experts additionally noted: “The proportion of handicapped people afflicted with poverty is significantly higher” than for the rest of the population, and “Inadequate social protection could further encourage these people to wish to end their life, in despair.”

They underlined that the Canadian law on euthanasia had a “discriminatory impact” on the handicapped and was incompatible with the obligations of Canada to comply with the international standards of Human Rights.

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