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Canada Legalizes Physician-Assisted Dying

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, shown here in Japan last month, has publicly backed legislation on physician-assisted suicide.
Koji Ueda

After weeks of debate, Canadian lawmakers have passed legislation to legalize physician-assisted death.

That makes Canada "one of the few nations where doctors can legally help sick people die," as Reuters reports.

The new law "limits the option to the incurably ill, requires medical approval and mandates a 15-day waiting period," as The Two-Way has reported.

The Canadian government introduced the bill in April and it passed a final Senate vote Friday. It includes strict criteria that patients must meet to obtain a doctor's help in dying. As we have reported, a patient must:

  • "Be eligible for government-funded health care (a requirement limiting assisted suicides to Canadians and permanent residents, to prevent suicide tourism)."
  • "Be a mentally competent adult 18 or older."
  • "Have a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability."
  • "Be in an 'advanced state of irreversible decline,' with enduring and intolerable suffering."
  • As a safeguard, the law also requires that two independent witnesses be present when the patient signs a request for a doctor-assisted death.

    A heated debate emerged over whether to require patients to prove that their "natural death has become reasonably foreseeable," as the law reads.

    Some lawmakers wanted to broader eligibility criteria that would include degenerative diseases, Reuters reports. "The key amendment that senators had been pushing for was to broaden the criteria for who qualifies for assisted dying," reporter Dan Karpenchuk tells our Newscast unit. "They had insisted that it includes suffering Canadians who are not close to death."

    Ultimately, the senators dropped the amendment and adopted the bill with the more restrictive language – but Dan says the law will likely be challenged in courts. He adds:

    "Some senators say [the law] is immoral, adding that there could be people facing years of excruciating suffering, but not yet close to death. And in launching expensive legal challenges many who are desperately ill and their families could go broke from court cases to determine if they have the right to an assisted death."

    Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould had opposed the broader criteria, arguing that it would mean that patients with "any serious medical condition, whether it be a soldier with PTSD, a young person with a spinal cord injury, or a survivor whose memory is haunted with memories of sexual abuse" could be eligible for a physician-assisted death, as CBC reports.

    After the legislation was passed, Wilson-Raybould said in a statement with the Attorney General and Minister of Health that it "strikes the right balance between personal autonomy for those seeking access to medically assisted dying and protecting the vulnerable."

    Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had backed the legislation, which was introduced after Canada's Supreme Court struck down a ban on doctor-assisted suicide last year.

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    Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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