On December 3, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the NDP and Liberals voted to move Bill C-7, which offers assisted suicide to people with disabilities, to third reading. The Bill is framed as a mere “extension” of medical assistance in dying (MAiD), consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and compelled by a Quebec Superior Court decision. It is none of these things.
The Bill would introduce assisted suicide not for those who are dying or other Canadians, but only for people with disabilities who experience “intolerable suffering”. It thereby directly violates s 15 of our Charter because it denies people with disabilities equal protection of the law by removing an important safeguard—the reasonable foreseeability of death—provided to everyone else in this country. It falls embarrassingly short of Canada’s international obligations regarding the rights of people with disabilities.
It is a cruel charade to pretend that a trial court decision by a single judge requires an emergency response by federal legislation. This government has actively fought multiple rulings by the Canadian Human Rights Commission and even the United Nations regarding findings of discrimination against Indigenous children and women. Yet it has immediately capitulated to a lower court ruling that people with disabilities are entitled to access to assisted suicide. Given that the current regime of MAiD has already saved the federal government $87M in health care costs, one might be forgiven for wondering whether the federal response here is driven by crass economic calculations.
By targeting a Charter-protected group, Bill C-7 singles out for assisted suicide the suffering associated with disability as of a different quality and kind than any other suffering. It promotes an ableist stereotype that significant disability is worse than death, devaluing the lives of people with disabilities by suggesting that suicide prevention for this group is less important than for others. Even a Department of Justice background document has noted that allowing MAiD “in circumstances where a person is not approaching natural death could be seen as undermining suicide prevention initiatives and normalizing death as a solution to many forms of suffering.”
It is true that only those who “choose” MAiD will receive it. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that the fact that people can “choose” an option that is discriminatory does not preclude a Charter violation. This is particularly so where those choices are constrained by systemic inequalities like poverty and access to services. For example, Indigenous disability organizations report that the health care and other services available to Indigenous persons with disabilities are woefully inadequate, and other organizations report that the wait time for services, like mental health or chronic pain services, far exceeds the paltry 90 day assessment period to receive a medically assisted death in the Bill. As the Court states: “substantive equality looks not only at the choices that are available to individuals, but at ‘the social and economic environments in which [they] pla[y] out’.”
In pursuing Bill C-7, Canada is riding roughshod over its international obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), to which it has been committed since 2007. Under Article 4, Canada must “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws… that constitute discrimination against persons with disabilities” and “shall closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities…through their representative organizations.”
Yet the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2017 specifically recommended that Canada “[e]nsure persons who seek an assisted death have access to alternative courses of action and to a dignified life made possible with appropriate palliative care, disability support, home care and other social measures that support human flourishing.” Commenting on her visit to Canada in 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur was “extremely concerned about the implementation of the legislation on medical assistance in dying from a disability perspective.” In her Report of 2019, the Rapporteur maintained that “[a]ssisted dying must not be seen as a cost-effective alternative to providing personal assistance and disability services for persons with disabilities, in particular those with high support needs.” The disability community’s unified opposition to Bill C-7 makes manifest Canada’s failure to respect its duty to consult and work with the organizations that represent this community’s interests.
But Justice Minister Lametti and Prime Minister Trudeau have decided that we make death available first and then think about whether we want to fix the underlying societal problems that make death the only choice for some Canadians. We are a rich, democratic country that purports to value equality and the right to life of persons with disabilities. Bill C-7 shatters those illusions. We will have to lower our heads in shame nationally and in the United Nations if this law passes in its current form.
Isabel Grant is a Professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in criminal law and disability law.
Professor Archie Kaiser teaches at the Schulich School of Law and is also cross-appointed to the Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University. He is an advisor to People First Nova Scotia, which promotes the rights to freedom, choice and equality for persons labelled with an intellectual disability.
Elizabeth Sheehy, F.R.S.C., O. Ont., is Professor Emerita of Law at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on issues of inequality in criminal law, including legal responses to men’s violence against women.