Canada is postponing a plan to offer people suffering from mental illness the option of a medically assisted death, two cabinet ministers said Monday.
The announcement by Mark Holland, Minister of Health, and Arif Virani, Minister of Justice, came after a special parliamentary committee looking at the plan It concluded that there are not enough doctors, particularly psychiatrists, in the country to evaluate mentally ill patients who want to end their lives and help them do so.
“The system has to be ready and we have to get it right,” Holland told reporters. “It is clear from the conversations we have had that the system is not ready and we need more time.”
Neither minister offered any timetable for the latest extension. After an earlier delay, the extension was scheduled to come into effect on March 17.
Canada already offers medically assisted dying to people with chronic and terminal illnesses, but the plan to extend the program to people with mental illness has divided Canadians.
Some critics say the plan is a consequence of the inability of Canada’s public health system to provide adequate psychiatric care, which is chronically underfunded and facing demand that outstrips its availability.
Many psychiatrists say the plan would undermine efforts to prevent suicide and have expressed fear that patients with complex problems will abandon treatments that can take years to achieve results in favor of medically assisted dying.
Supporters say denying people with mental illness the option to end their suffering through death is a form of discrimination.
Canada introduced medically assisted dying after its The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that forcing people to endure intolerable suffering infringed the fundamental rights to liberty and security.
The law was expanded in 2021 after the Quebec Superior Court struck down the government’s original assisted dying law on constitutional grounds because it only applied to people whose deaths were “reasonably foreseeable.”
The 2021 law expanded eligibility to people experiencing “serious and irremediable” conditions. Its separate provisions for people with mental illness, which were added to the law by Canada’s unelected Senate, were originally postponed for two years.
Members of the opposition Conservative Party have accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government of promoting a “culture of death.” Some left-wing politicians have also opposed expanding mental illness and have said they want to focus on further expanding psychiatric care.
Michael Cooper, a Conservative member of Parliament who sat on the special committee, said the government should make the postponement indefinite.
“I don’t see any indication that the fundamental issues that are at the heart – or should be at the heart – of pausing this expansion will be resolved,” he said.
Dying with Dignity Canada, a group that advocates for the right to medically assisted dying, said in a statement that it was “disheartened” by the latest delay.
The health and justice ministers said the new implementation date would be included in soon-to-be-introduced legislation that would formally extend the delay.
About 13,200 Canadians had an assisted death last year, a 31 per cent increase from 2021, according to a report from the federal health department. About 3.5 percent of those patients were not terminally ill but had other qualifying medical conditions.
Both Canada and the United States have a three-digit suicide crisis hotline: 988. If you are having suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 and visit 988.ca (Canada) or 988lifeline.org (United States) for a list of additional resources. This service offers bilingual crisis support in each country, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.