Right-to-die opponent to lead federal study on advance consent for assisted dying

Dying With Dignity Canada is calling for clarification after a vocal opponent of assisted dying was appointed to lead a working group that will report to Parliament about the possible expansion of the country’s right-to-die law.

Last year, the federal government commissioned the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) to conduct independent studies into whether the eligibility criteria in Bill C-14, the federal government’s assisted dying law, should be expanded. On Thursday, the CCA announced the researchers who will be studying whether to extend access to MAID to include three groups who don’t qualify under Bill C-14: mature minors; individuals whose primary medical condition is a mental illness; and desperately ill individuals who will continue to be excluded unless the law is changed to allow for advance requests for assisted dying.

The leading organization helping Canadians to avoid unwanted, unnecessary suffering at end of life, Dying With Dignity Canada (DWDC), is dismayed that a strident opponent of MAID will chair the working group that will study advance requests for assisted dying. University of Toronto professor Dr. Harvey Schipper expressed his opposition to assisted dying in a number of newspaper editorials. In a June 2014 op-ed published in The Globe and Mail, he likened the arguments put forward by assisted dying advocates to those the Nazi regime used to justify their eugenics program and the Holocaust.

“Whether or not he stands by them today, Dr. Schipper’s past comments are a grave insult to the 85 per cent of Canadians who support the right to compassion and choice at end of life,” said DWDC CEO Shanaaz Gokool. “In addition, his appointment sends a troubling message to Canadians who’ve been diagnosed with a capacity-eroding illness like dementia and who want to exercise their Charter right to a peaceful death. We urge Dr. Schipper to clarify his stance on MAID and whether he plans to bring an impartial but sensitive approach to his work on advance consent.”

According to a February 2016 poll commissioned by DWDC and conducted by Ipsos Reid, eight in 10 Canadians support allowing individuals diagnosed with a grievous and irremediable medical condition to make advance requests for assisted dying that could be honoured after the patient loses mental capacity. More recent public-opinions polls have come to a similar conclusion.

“For a great many of our supporters, especially those facing a dementia diagnosis, the right to advance consent for assisted dying is what motivated them to join our movement,” Gokool said. “And unless this country’s assisted dying rules are brought into line with the values of the Charter, these individuals will continue to face unjust discrimination."

DWDC is renewing its call for the CCA’s studies to adopt a “can-do” approach to restoring assisted dying access to Canadians whose rights were denied with the passage of Bill C-14. In addition, Gokool urged the CCA working groups to conduct public consultations as part of their research. The committees’ findings will be submitted to the federal government by the end of 2018.

"If the CCA does hold public consultations, we have to think of the vulnerable people who may be speaking or submitting to this committee that Schipper chairs," Gokool said. "We need to ensure that they will feel respected for their views in support of assisted dying and that all perspectives will be received in a reasoned and respectful manner."

Gokool added, “This must not turn into an expensive Ivory Tower exercise that is disconnected from the experiences of desperately ill Canadians. Their rights and choices must be at the heart of any serious exploration of the future of assisted dying in Canada.”