At least 744 assisted-deaths in Canada since law passed: CTV News analysis
Published Wednesday, December 28, 2016 10:03PM EST
At least 744 gravely ill adults received a doctor’s help to end their lives since the medical procedure became legal across Canada in 2016, and experts say those numbers are expected to rise.
CTV News surveyed provincial and territorial health ministries to gather the most comprehensive picture of the practice to date. The numbers show that, on average, four Canadians per day had medically assisted deaths between June 17 and December 16.
Medical assistance in dying became legal across Canada in June after the Liberal government passed Bill C-14, which allowed Canadians with terminal illnesses where natural death was “reasonably foreseeable” to choose to die with a doctor’s help.
CTV’s survey showed that, in some regions, the number of adults opting for the end-of-life procedure is accelerating as patients with terminal illnesses grow to accept the idea.
“I know that it will increase. I expect that we’ll get to the point of the Netherlands and Belgium because their laws are similar to ours, and that would mean about 5 per cent of all deaths,” said Vancouver-based physician Dr. Ellen Wiebe, who helped at least 40 patients die this year.
Ontario leads the country for the highest number of procedures performed since legalization, at 180. Almost one-third of those procedures were performed in the past four weeks, suggesting that there are now approximately 13 assisted deaths performed every week in Ontario.
The most up-to-date provincial data shows that, up until mid-December:
- 154 procedures were performed in B.C.
- 63 were performed in Alberta, with 19 occurring in the past month
- 18 were performed in Manitoba
- 8 were performed in Saskatchewan
- As of Oct. 31, 16 were performed in Nova Scotia
- 4 were performed in Newfoundland and Labrador
- None were performed in P.E.I. or the Northwest Territories
- New Brunswick, the Yukon and Iqaluit did not release data -- however, in the Yukon, local media have reported on one case
- In Quebec, where the procedures began in December of 2015, there were an estimated 300 assisted deaths in 2016
The data collected by CTV News also showed that most patients who opted for an assisted death suffered from conditions such as cancer or neurological diseases, including multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
While detailed statistics are generally available for patients approved for the procedure, CTV News was unable to attain comprehensive information on how many Canadians applied for medical suicide and were denied, or the reasons why they were rejected.
That’s because few details -- including gender, age and where the procedures were performed -- are collected and released.
In Alberta, which releases some of the most detailed statistics of any province, reports showed that some patients were ineligible for medical assisted deaths because of a mental health diagnosis or because death was not proven to be imminent.
Ethicist and University of Toronto health law professor Trudo Lemmens says provinces should release more data to help protect patients from potential abuse.
“There is a concern that people who are vulnerable or who find themselves in a situation of vulnerability may be pressured consciously or unconsciously to opt for medical assistance in dying either because of financial circumstances or because the medical help that they need is not necessarily available,” he told CTV News.
Health care providers across Canada have made strides in making assisted death accessible to patients since June, said Wiebe. Calgary ALS patient Hanne Schafer was among the first to receive a doctor’s help to die, with Weibe performing the procedure.
“The poor woman had to travel on the last day of her life because there were so few physicians. And now things have changed a lot. So now very few people have to travel, they’re able to get their assisted deaths usually in their own homes or where they would like to be,” Wiebe said.
But Schafer's close friend and supporter Mary Valentich said many others still face significant barriers getting help to end their suffering.
“We have faith-based units, palliative care centres and hospitals that currently will not even permit discussion of the range of end-of-life issues. I think that’s just really very oppressive,” Valentich said.
In September, the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories issued guidelines directing priests to deny funerals for some people who died by assisted suicide. In a statement, the group called physician-assisted death a “grave sin” that went against Catholic teachings.
Canada is one of several countries across the world where doctor-assisted suicide is available, including Switzerland and Germany.
With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip and files from The Canadian Press