Ottawa should exercise caution toward MAiD laws


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An investigation by Veterans Affairs Canada into reports that former service members were offered medical assistance in dying concluded this week, with the department stating it only uncovered four “isolated” incidents involving a single now-former employee.

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An investigation by Veterans Affairs Canada into reports that former service members were offered medical assistance in dying concluded this week, with the department stating it only uncovered four “isolated” incidents involving a single now-former employee.

That conclusion was contained in a report submitted to the House of Commons veterans affairs committee yesterday, according to The Canadian Press, following an investigation that involved interviews with hundreds of former service members and their families, and the review of thousands of files.

In referring these incidents to the RCMP, Veterans Affairs stated it “deeply regrets what transpired and understands the seriousness of these completely isolated incidents.”

The incidents in question took place between 2019 and 2022, and were all related to a single employee — and not a “widespread or a systemic issue,” Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay told media late last year.

The minister also said the employee who was responsible for all four confirmed cases of MAID discussions with veterans was no longer an employee at Veterans Affairs Canada after the issue was raised by national media last summer.

The report handed to the House of Commons yesterday stated that all other allegations that had been brought forward were deemed unfounded.

The minister and his office have previously asserted that VAC employees have no role in raising assisted dying with members of the Canadian Armed Forces who are seeking assistance. And going forward, if veterans bring up the issue of medically assisted dying in conversation with a service agent, a CTV report last year stated that discussion will be elevated to the employee’s supervisor, as an additional guardrail.

In fact, staff are now essentially forbidden from raising assisted dying as an option, though employees can speak about benefits and support available if a veteran has already chosen to use MAiD.

While such guidelines are a necessary precaution, the fact it ever occurred to an employee of Veterans Affairs to broach the subject of medically assisted suicide with a vulnerable person — let alone a veteran who is seeking the aid of mental health services — is itself a problem.

It also speaks to the larger conversation that this country is having regarding medical assistance in dying, and our treatment of people who are suffering from mental illness.

A recent survey of Canadians by the Angus Reid Institute found that about 60 per cent of those polled support MAiD in its current form, which allows people with severe and irreversible medical conditions to apply for such help in ending their lives. But Canadian support dropped for MAiD when the issue of mental health came up, with only three in 10 Canadians supporting the idea of allowing patients who are diagnosed with mental illnesses to apply.

The issue has, of course, taken on a political bend with Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives calling upon the Liberal government to end the expansion of medically assisted death to those with mental illness.

“Many Canadians are suffering from depression and they’re losing hope. Our job is to turn their hurt back into hope and to give them faith that their lives can be better tomorrow than they are today. To treat mental health problems rather than ending people’s lives,” Poilievre told media this week, while introducing Bill C-314 (the Mental Health Protection Act), which would prevent Canadians with mental illness as their only medical condition ineligible for MAiD.

This followed the Liberal’s Bill C-39 last February, which pushed back the expansion of MAiD a full year, giving the federal government “additional time to get this right,” according to Justice Minister David Lametti.

But this is only a pause.

As we have said before on this page, this is hardly a black and white issue. Proponents of medically assisted death have long argued that politics and societal norms have got in the way of the freedom to choose to live or die far too often.

But there is some truth to the idea that making it easy for those suffering from mental illness to access MAiD could do far more harm than good to patients and their families.

In a public letter released last Tuesday, dozens of expert witnesses, including doctors, ethicists and disability advocates criticized the parliamentary committee studying Canada’s euthanasia laws for “recommending a wide expansion of assisted dying that includes mature minors and people with mental illness,” according to a Globe and Mail report, without paying attention to the potential risks.

The letter accused the committee of being “activist” instead of prudent, and said it would “introduce larger segments of the Canadian population to potential harms instead of supporting Canadians to live well and flourish.”

Without a doubt, there are ethical concerns in allowing those suffering from medical illnesses to access MAiD. The fact the federal government has been forced to pause this expansion should be proof enough of that.

It’s often said the first instinct of a doctor should always be to “do no harm.” We should expect no less from our political leaders, and as a society we need to demand governments proceed very cautiously — if at all — when it comes to expanding these kinds of rights to our society’s most vulnerable citizens.

And when in doubt, don’t.

» Matt Goerzen, editor

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