I HAVE on several previous occasions written about the issue of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide (EAS). A topic that divides, challenges and goes to the heart of an ethical debate of which we are only scratching the surface – is it right to kill a person or help someone commit suicide because he or she is ill, disabled, has mental health problems, fears becoming a burden or is simply lonely?
While my answer is an unequivocal No, there are those who strongly disagree with me, painting a dystopian picture of palliative care provided by doctors and nurses or in the UK’s hospices. They claim there are thousands of people dying cruelly and in pain.
There is only one problem with this emotive argument – it is not true. Yes, there are examples where palliative or social care have failed. Dreadful examples that as a society we should get angry about and be demanding that the Government prevents from happening again, but do these cases justify changing laws that at their root are about protecting vulnerable people?
My answer is again an unequivocal No and we do not have to look particularly hard to find the reasons why.
Canada, which shares our common-law heritage, legalised EAS in 2015 for those with a ‘foreseeable’ death, with the law coming into force in the summer of 2016. In the remainder of that year there were 1,015 deaths, but by 2020 the number had risen to 7,595, representing 2.5 per cent of all deaths in Canada. Put another way, in just five years EAS deaths were up 648 per cent.
While numbers being killed were rising, reports about those requiring health care being refused also increased. In one such case Roger Foley from Ontario, who has the neurological disease cerebellar ataxia, recorded hospital staff repeatedly offering him a ‘medically assisted death’, despite his statements that he did not want to die and wanted to go home.
His case is far from unique. In June the family of 84-year-old Joan Rohoway, who is dying of cancer, told how their heavily drugged mother, from Surrey in British Columbia, was visited in hospital by a medic who told her there were no treatment options and encouraged her to sign a euthanasia form. Her family complained to the hospital, saying she would never have agreed to this. Hospital staff then threatened to file papers to obtain legal guardianship of Joan, a threat they later dropped.
In September 2019, the Quebec Superior Court struck down the requirement that a natural death must be ‘reasonably foreseeable’, and the Quebec law that people must ‘be at the end of life’, before being eligible for euthanasia. Responding to this court case, the Canadian government committed to extending EAS to ‘persons who have a mental illness’; a report regarding the extension of EAS to children is to follow.
Ahead of the law’s extension, a separate parliamentary report celebrated that bumping off the elderly and terminally ill had already saved the government millions, with experts predicting that healthcare savings would reach $149million (£86million) by the end of this year.
In 2019 an Ontario court removed the right of doctors to object conscientiously to participating in euthanasia, meaning that doctors who deem euthanasia morally questionable due to their medical, religious or philosophical beliefs must give patients seeking these services an ‘effective referral’.
Twelve months later the Delta Hospice in British Columbia had its funding stopped because it refused to euthanise its patients. The hospice subsequently closed, laying off all its staff, before the local health authority had to reopen it.
Worryingly, the response from politicians has been decidedly quiet. Far from standing up for the rights of doctors not to be compelled to offer a ‘treatment’ they disagree with, the loudest voices have been the complete opposite.
Bringing us bang up to date has been the Health Canada release of the second annual report on those killed by EAS in 2020.
The data was gathered from reports submitted by medical practitioners who kill their patients and makes truly depressing reading. Setting aside the lack of independent scrutiny, it confirms that of the almost 7,600 people who died by lethal injection, 1,412 or almost one in five cited loneliness as a reason for their decision. Their misery was no doubt compounded by the isolation experienced during Covid restrictions.
The report highlights significant variations in the euthanasia rates in the different regions or provinces. Perhaps unsurprisingly British Columbia, which defunded the Delta Hospice, had the highest death rates, up to 4 per cent of all deaths in the region, while Newfoundland had the lowest death rate from euthanasia at 0.9 per cent.
There is no official explanation for the variations, but it is not wholly unreasonable to suspect that some areas in Canada are aggressively pushing euthanasia to vulnerable people either as a way to save money, or because they think some patients with physical or mental illness are not worthy of saving. With an Assisted Dying Bill currently going through Parliament, is this what we want in the UK?