What is the Law on Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada?

Until February 2015, it was illegal in Canada to assist a person in committing suicide. The act of aiding or abetting a suicide was an indictable offence under s.241(b) of the Criminal Code.

However, the Supreme Court ruled in Carter v. Canada that the prohibition on physician-assisted suicide constitutes an unjustifiable infringement on the right to life, liberty and security of the person; this ruling spurred the government to pass federal legislation allowing eligible Canadian adults to request medical assistance in dying.

Below is a brief summary of the legislative framework of doctor assisted suicide (known in the law as medical assisted dying) in Canada. This information is drawn from the legislation itself (An Act to amend the Criminal Code and to make related amendments to other Acts (medical assistance in dying), along with a brief on medical assistance in dying written by Steve Grant, a wills and estates lawyer in Kitchener, Ontario.

What Does ‘Medical Assistance in Dying’ Mean in Canada?

Section 241.1 of the Criminal Code defines medical assistance in dying as:

  • A medical practitioner or nurse practitioner administering a substance to a person, at the person’s request, that causes the person’s death; or
  • A medical practitioner or nurse practitioner prescribing/providing a substance to a person that the person can self-administer to cause their own death.

In other words, medical assistance in dying can be a doctor or nurse administering a drug that causes a patient to die, or prescribing a drug the person can take on their own in order to die.

Who Can Request Medical Assistance in Dying?

The legislation includes safeguards intended to ensure that only adults (at least 18 years of age) who are able to request the service of their own free will and make health care decisions for themselves may request medical assistance in dying. The person must be able to give informed consent. If the person cannot put the request in writing, they can still request medical assistance in dying through another person that meets certain criteria.

Additionally, an adult must meet the following criteria to be eligible for medical assistance in dying:

  • Eligible for government-funded health services (either federal or a province/territory)
  • Have a grevious and irremediable medical condition
  • Make a voluntary request for medical assistance in dying, meaning no outside pressure or influence
  • Give informed consent to receive medical assistance in dying.

Does a Person Need to be Terminally Ill to Receive Medical Assistance in Dying?

A person does not need to be terminally ill to be eligible for medical assistance in dying in Canada. However, the person must have a grievous and irremediable medical condition.

The criteria for a ‘grievous and irremediable medical condition’ are as follows:

  • It is a serious illness, disease or disability;
  • It is in an advanced state of decline that cannot be reversed;
  • It causes unbearable mental or physical suffering that cannot be relieved under conditions that the person considers acceptable; and
  • At this point, the person’s natural death is reasonably foreseeable.

How Can Someone Request Medical Assistance in Dying?

To request medical assistance in dying, a person must:

  1. Submit a written request (some provinces and territories have a specific form).
  2. Undergo medical assessments by at least two physicians or nurse practitioners.
  3. Wait a 10-day reflection period.

This process can be undertaken with the help of a doctor or nurse practitioner.

Does a Person Require a Will to Request Medical Assistance in Dying?

The law does not require that someone complete a will before requesting this service. However, it is pertinent to do so in order to provide the person’s family with direction and clarity in the aftermath.

It can be enormously helpful to retain a lawyer who is familiar with Canada’s medical assistance in dying laws. There are will and estate lawyers in Kitchener and around the country with experience providing end-of-life assistance to patients in these circumstances.