Canadians are generally supportive of the country’s medical assistance in dying (MAiD) law, a new poll suggests — but that support drops significantly when asked about a controversial expansion for mental health disorders.
The results from the Angus Reid Institute’s survey released Monday suggests that while 61 per cent of Canadians support the current version of the legislation, only 31 per cent agree the mental health expansion should be passed. Just over half of those surveyed — 51 per cent — are opposed.
The results further speak to the fraught nature of expanding the MAiD law to allow for mental health disorders as a sole condition for seeking a medically-assisted death, which has sparked heated debate on both sides of the issue.
Earlier this month, Justice Minister David Lametti tabled legislation that would delay the expansion, which was set to take effect in March, for another year until 2024.
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Lametti announced in December that Ottawa intended to seek the delay after hearing concerns the health-care system might not be prepared for “an expanded regime,” adding the time must be taken to “get this right.”
The Liberal government agreed to expand eligibility in its 2021 update to the assisted dying law after senators amended the bill. The senators argued that excluding people with mental illness would violate their rights.
That led to a two-year sunset clause being built into legislation, which was an update to the original 2016 law that made MAiD legal in Canada.
While some mental health advocates have championed the expansion and criticized this month’s delay, Conservatives and some medical practitioners have called the move dangerous and will lead to preventable deaths.
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The Angus Reid poll found support for MAiD in Canada has grown since 2016. Even the opposition to the mental health expansion has come down from 78 per cent seven years ago.
When the original legislation passed, 56 per cent of Canadians surveyed at the time were supportive while just 16 per cent were opposed, although 28 per cent said they did not know enough about the issue to have an opinion.
After the 2021 update, that uncertainty dropped to a mere 11 per cent, and although support for the law climbed to 61 per cent, opposition nearly doubled to 28 per cent.
The poll found little difference in opposition the mental health expansion across provinces or age groups. While 65 per cent of Conservative voters surveyed said they were against the move, Liberal and NDP voters were largely divided, with roughly 40 per cent opposed.
When it comes to other reasons for pursuing MAiD, Canadians appear to only support debilitating chronic pain as a primary condition, with 64 per cent of those surveyed agreeing.
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Other scenarios where MAiD might be sought received dwindling support, from 40 per cent saying overwhelming serious health problems was a proper reason to 22 per cent saying the same about severe depression.
Non-medical scenarios were seen as even less legitimate: only nine per cent, for instance, said someone who couldn’t find affordable housing should seek out a medically-assisted death.
A majority of Canadians surveyed — 65 per cent — agreed that potential patients should seek out and exhaust all available treatment options before MAiD becomes available to them.
Controversy has erupted over Canada’s MAiD legislation after Global News first reported last summer a Veterans Affairs Canada employee raised assisted death with a veteran as a possible solution to a post-traumatic brain injury.
The department later confirmed that employee raised the issue with at least four veterans since 2019, and is no longer employed. The case has been referred to the RCMP for a potential criminal investigation.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has repeatedly pointed to that case, and concerns raised by the CEO of the Mississauga Food Bank saying people had come to her facility asking about assisted dying, as proof that MAiD is becoming too accessible to people in crisis.
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Health Canada data shows assisted deaths in Canada have grown since the law was introduced in 2016, hitting a high of just over 10,000 approved deaths in 2021.
Official data on how many Canadians accessed MAiD in 2022 have not yet been released, but federal officials said earlier this month only about 500 Canadians whose deaths were not foreseeable were granted assisted dying — a number they said could indicate that uptake of the mental health extension could be similarly low.
The poll suggests 15 per cent of Canadians can say either a close friend or family member has gone through with a medically-assisted death, as well as general support for the idea that more Canadians are seeking the procedure.
Although one-quarter of those surveyed said the growth in medically-assisted deaths is a bad thing for the country, 43 per cent said it was a positive development that people can have a say over their own end-of-life decisions.
Federal officials say the one-year delay is needed to allow the federal government to complete work underway to develop practice standards and clinical expectations for physicians and nurse practitioners who administer MAiD to complex cases involving those seeking assisted dying for mental illness.
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Work on these standards began last year, and Ottawa plans to release them next month to give time to provincial and territorial regulatory bodies to determine how they will interpret and incorporate these standards into their own regulations.
The federal government is also developing a “MAiD curriculum” to help train medical professionals administering and consulting on assisted dying. These education modules will cover everything from the basic legal framework of the MAiD system to more complex issues, such as dealing with vulnerabilities of applicants.
In addition, last month, new regulations for the current assisted dying law came into effect that require more detailed reporting from provinces and territories and all assessors and providers involved in MAiD cases.
Ottawa will collect this information in an effort to understand more about the people who are accessing MAiD and the reasons why they may be choosing this option.
— with files from Teresa Wright
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