TORONTO — As the federal government looks for public opinion on how to proceed with a court ruling saying they must change a law regarding who is able to access medical assistance to end their lives, some Canadians affected by the law are feeling the time pressure.
Following a ruling by the Superior Court of Quebec that stated it was unconstitutional to allow only Canadians who are already near death to seek medical assistance to end their suffering, the federal government has agreed to eliminate the near-death requirement.
They have until March 11 to amend the law, according to the ruling.
But on Monday, as the government launched a two-week public consultation in the form of an online questionnaire, Justice Minister David Lametti said there was the possibility that the government would have to ask for an extension, depending on the results of the consultation.
“It may be that we have the consensus for (changing the law), depending on what we do, and then it slides through,” Lametti said. “If not, we haven’t ruled out asking for an extension.”
For Justine Noel, who has been anxiously waiting for the law to be changed, the situation is not just frustrating. It’s causing her more and more pain every single day.
Noel, who lives in Ontario, has fibromyalgia, a treatment-resistant disorder that causes her significant pain.
It’s also not fatal, which means that under the current law, the 29-year-old is unable to access medically assisted death, something she has been certain she wants for a long time now.
“I keep getting worse every week, and there’s no treatment left,” she told CTV News. “And I already couldn’t do anything a year ago, and now I’m at the point where doing nothing is still incredibly painful.
“I can’t even imagine doing this for another couple weeks, let alone months or years, while I wait for other people to decide what I am and am not allowed to do.”
She has applied for assisted death twice, but was turned down both times. In December, she shared with CTV News that she had already tried every treatment available to her in Canada.
Noel worries that by making the survey open to anyone in Canada, the results could be skewed by people who have never spoken to a person who needed medically assisted death, or people who know nothing about the legal and ethical circumstances surrounding it.
“I don’t really understand why they’re asking the general public their opinion on other people being able to access a medical procedure,” she said.
She added that it is “upsetting” to hear that changing the law could take even longer than the March deadline, “when I’ve been told to be patient for a very long time.”
The questionnaire does not just ask Canadians about removing the clause requiring those seeking medically assisted death to be terminally ill.
It also asks respondents to consider whether the law needs more amendments, such as increasing the current 10 day minimum wait between requesting and receiving medically assisted death or requiring psychological assessments to ascertain a patient’s capacity to consent, among other things.
The concern for some is that loosening the laws surrounding medically assisted death will lead to abuse, with vulnerable people being coerced into decisions they might not have made otherwise.
Disability rights activist Amy Hasbrouck, with Not Dead Yet, told CTV News that she fears seniors and disabled people could be pressured into choosing an early death.
“We’ve already detected abuses and we see the possibility of many more if this criterion is deleted from the law,” she said. “We think that disabled people are the most vulnerable to those abuses.”
But Noel points out that there are already systems in place to ensure that patients are going into medically assisted death with their eyes fully open, including a private interview as part of the process.
“There’s already an assessment to make sure that this is your own choice,” she said. “It keeps people from making a sudden decision, it keeps people from being forced or tricked into it.”
She does not believe that more consultation or further delay in changing the law will help more people. She believes it could force people to take matters into their own hands.
“There are a lot of people waiting for this law to change. There are a lot of people worse off than me,” she said. Teary-eyed, she explained that at least she was able to give interviews and show her point of view, something that not everyone in her position is capable of.
Delaying the change to the law will only “lead to people just being hurt instead of dying,” she said.
“Because there’s no real way to do this on your own that’s accessible to everyone.”
The public consultation will go on until Jan 27.
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