Right to Die FAQs
Is it legal in Canada for someone to end their own life?
Yes, in 1972 suicide was removed from the criminal code and it has been legal ever since. It remains illegal for anyone to counsel, aid or abet another person to end his or her own life.
If Canadians already have the right to die, why do we need medically-assisted dying?
While we have the right to die, very few of us have the resources to do so peacefully.
Many people think they could just end their lives by taking a bottle of Tylenol or other medication, perhaps washed down with a swig of champagne. The reality is that taking an over-the-counter medication or most prescription medications, even in large doses, is unlikely to lead to death. It is much more likely to lead to brain damage, liver failure or a coma.
Accessible and effective ways of ending our lives tend to be violent, such as shooting or hanging. Not only are these traumatic for the survivors, they inevitably end up by causing the individual to die alone. What's more, most individuals with terminal or incurable illnesses will not, at the end of their lives, be able to take their own lives in this manner.
We believe Canadians should have the right to medically-assisted dying because we believe individuals should be entitled to a peaceful death - and that no one should have to die alone.
What is medically assisted dying?
Medically assisted dying, also called medical aid in dying, is an umbrella term that refers to an appropriately regulated process whereby a medical professional actively assists a patient to die.
In all types of medically assisted dying, a participating physician has a key role to play in diagnosing the patient's condition and assessing the patient's capacity to make decisions.
In some jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal, the physician may write a prescription for medication which the patient obtains and self-administers. This remedy, also known as physician assisted suicide, is practiced in Oregon and Washington State.
Other jurisdictions allow a doctor, or someone under a doctor's supervision, to administer life-ending medication at the request of a qualifying patient. This remedy is also known as voluntary euthanasia. In contrast to self-administered medication (assisted suicide) voluntary euthanasia allows the patient to determine the timing of their death, even once they are no longer able to use their hands or swallow. Voluntary euthanasia is legal in both The Netherlands and Belgium.
Is this different from euthanasia?
Medically assisted dying is an umbrella term that covers both patient self-administration of life-ending medication (physician assisted suicide or PAS) and voluntary euthanasia, where the patient requests and is given medication administered by a medical professional to end their life.
For example, in the Netherlands, where voluntary euthanasia is legal, a patient will typically gather with their family around them and say good-bye, then a doctor will administer a shot which will result in their peacefully slipping into a coma and dying.
Care needs to be taken to distinguish between the legal practice of voluntary euthanasia (assistance to die requested by a patient) and non-voluntary euthanasia (assistance to die without an explicit request by the patient) and involuntary euthanasia (death without the consent of the patient, also known as murder).
Advocates for the right to die support voluntary euthanasia. No jurisdiction has legalized non-voluntary or involuntary euthanasia.
Are there different types of euthanasia?
Euthanasia is generally considered to take one of three forms.
The first is voluntary euthanasia. Many people remember Sue Rodriguez from the early 1990's; this is what she wanted.
Sue Rodriguez was a competent and mature adult who was suffering from ALS. She wanted to die but was unable to take her own life - her disease was advanced and she no longer had sufficient motor control. In voluntary euthanasia, the patient is competent, expresses their own wishes - and enlists the support of a medical professional to carry them out.
This type of euthanasia is legal in The Netherlands.
The second type of euthanasia we call pre-planned, and it is sometimes called non-voluntary.
This refers to euthanasia requested when an individual was competent, but performed when the patient has lost competence. For example, imagine an individual knows they are getting Alzheimers' and wants to have their life ended when all quality is gone.
The only jurisdiction in the world where pre-planned euthanasia is legal is in The Netherlands, and then only in very limited circumstances. The patient must have completed an advance care directive for euthanasia and the doctor must believe the individual is experiencing intolerable and intractable suffering.
The final type of euthanasia is involuntary. This is where someone's life is taken against their will. There is no organization in the world that advocates for this, nor is there any jurisdiction where it is legal. Irrespective of choice-in-dying laws, all jurisdictions have murder laws that cover involuntary euthanasia.
Where is medically-assisted dying legal?
Medically-assisted dying is legal in the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington. It is also legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
Most recently, a court decision in Montana that determined assisted dying was not illegal. The government of Montana has been instructed to rewrite the legislation accordingly.
Can Canadians travel to these jurisdictions and have assisted dying?
Only in Switzerland is it legal for non-residents to seek assisted dying. In all other jurisdictions, only residents can access assisted dying.
What happens in Canada if someone assists someone else to die?
Section 241 of the Canadian criminal code prohibits aiding, abetting or counseling someone to suicide. Breaking this law carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.
Isn't there a court challenge being brought right now?
Yes. The case of Gloria Taylor, also known as the Carter case, has been heard by the BC Supreme Court (which decided in favour of Gloria Taylor and her co-plaintiffs) and the BC Court of Appeal (where we await a decision). The losing side will appeal the decision of the BC Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, so this case has national significance.
For more information about this cases, see The Court Challenge for the Right to Die.
If legally assisted dying becomes available, what impact will it have on insurance policies? They have a clause regarding suicide, will legally aided dying be any different?
Check the wording of your individual policy. Most policies have either a one or two year exclusion for suicide. That means that if the individual has had a policy in place for longer than that, the manner of death is irrelevant.
In Oregon, under their Death With Dignity Act, death certificates were initially filled out to indicate “suicide,” but that practice has since been changed. Currently, the patient's disease is listed as the cause of death, acknowledging that it is this underlying disease that is in fact causing the person to hasten their dying.
If you have concerns, check your insurance contract and contact your insurance company directly.