As many of us know, the federal government’s legislation on medical assistance in dying (“MAID”) – Bill C-14 – was passed on June 17, 2016.
Only physicians and nurse practitioners (in certain provinces) are permitted to provide MAID in two ways:
1) directly administer the substance that causes death (e.g. an injection of a drug); or
2) provide or prescribe a drug that is self-administered to cause death.
In order to be eligible for MAID, one must meet all of the following criteria:
- be eligible for publicly-funded health services in Canada;
- be at least 18 years of age and capable of making their own health care decisions [emphasis added];
- have a grievous or irremediable medical condition;
- make a voluntary request for MAID; and
- give consent to receive MAID after being provided with all of the information necessary to make the decision.
For more information on MAID, please see the Government of Canada’s webpage on “Medical Assistance in Dying”.
Dr. Stefanie Green, in a recent British Columbia case, said that a person with dementia who meets the criteria, should be eligible for MAID, despite the previously widespread assumption that persons with dementia could not meet the eligibility requirements.
Mr. Gayle Garlock became one of the first Canadians with a dementia diagnosis publicly reported to have received MAID. The key issue in deciding whether a person is eligible for MAID, particularly in the case of a person with dementia, is asking whether they have the mental capacity for informed consent, intolerable suffering and a foreseeable death.
In Mr. Garlock’s case, he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in 2014, when he was 70 years old. According to Mr. Garlock’s wife, one of the losses that he would define as “intolerable suffering” was being unable to read.
By the spring of 2019, Mr. Garlock’s condition had deteriorated such that his mental processing had slowed and he struggled in conversation. Dr. Green, determined that he still knew what was going on around him and with him and that he understood that he had dementia and that it had progressed. His MAID application was approved on May 9, 2019. Mr. Garlock passed away peacefully with his wife and sons at his bedside.
According to Dr. Green, “This is not an expansion of our law…This is a maturing of the understanding of what we’re doing”.
This is important news to those persons suffering with dementia but is also a reminder to the medical community of the importance of approaching each case individually and carefully, particularly where a patient’s capacity may be in question.
To learn more about Mr. Garlock’s story, please see CBC’s recent article here.
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Since the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark decision in Carter v Canada (Attorney General) and the subsequent decriminalization of medical assistance in dying (“MAID”) in 2016, there has been considerable debate regarding the accessibility of MAID.
Currently, MAID is available only to individuals able to satisfy the following test (set out in the Criminal Code):
- they are eligible — or, but for any applicable minimum period of residence or waiting period, would be eligible — for health services funded by a government in Canada;
- they are at least 18 years of age and capable of making decisions with respect to their health;
- they have a grievous and irremediable medical condition;
- they have made a voluntary request for medical assistance in dying that, in particular, was not made as a result of external pressure; and
- they give informed consent to receive medical assistance in dying after having been informed of the means that are available to relieve their suffering, including palliative care.
The criteria do not feature any mechanism for providing advance consent to MAID. Similarly, an attorney or guardian of personal care cannot consent on behalf of the patient at the time of the procedure, once he or she loses the capacity to consent him or herself.
As it currently stands, an individual who qualifies for MAID must consent at the time of the procedure, before he or she may suffer from diminished mental capacity that compromises the patient’s ability to provide informed consent. In some cases, this has resulted in individuals accessing MAID before they otherwise may have chosen to do so to ensure that they would not be exposed to prolonged suffering during a subsequent period of incapacity, during which MAID would not longer be accessible.
Some individuals and groups, including Dying with Dignity Canada, argue that the laws regarding MAID should be amended to provide for the option of providing advanced requests for MAID.
According to a recent Toronto Star article (“No rush to change assisted-death law”, published on February 17, 2019), Justice Minister David Lametti has stated that MAID laws will not be updated in advance of a five-year parliamentary review in 2021 of how the current MAID regime is operating. At that time, it will no doubt be difficult in considering any changes to balance the rights of those with grievous and irremediable medical conditions to die with dignity on one hand, and the protection of individuals who are vulnerable and whose capable wishes can no longer be confirmed on the other.
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