In this column I would like to write about a difficult and intimate subject of personal relevance to all of us: physician assisted dying.
This is a federal matter in part because helping someone commit suicide is a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada. But it is also a challenge that B.C. MLAs must address: medical care – up to and including our last breath – is a provincial responsibility.
And this is an issue that is especially important to us in Saanich. Approximately 10 per cent of Saanich residents are over 75 years old compared to an average of six per cent in the rest of B.C. and Canada. And in the next decade more than 45 per cent of the population of Saanich will be age 60 or older.
Last year the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that physician assisted dying is legal in situations where patients can provide informed consent and are in enduring and intolerable pain. The federal government responded with extensive public hearings and reports and, as of three weeks ago, proposed Bill C-14.
There remains much work for the province to do. However, the B.C. government is seriously failing us. They have not held broad public consultations or held public hearings; they have not prepared a white paper, nor tabled draft legislation. In fact, they even refused to accept their own standing committee’s report on this matter.
The lack of leadership and courage from the B.C. government is a disservice to the people of B.C. Eighty-seven per cent of British Columbians support physician assisted dying, the highest percentage of any province in Canada.
Inaction by the B.C. government has contributed to the current situation. If Bill C-14 is not amended it will obligate many people to unnecessarily endure a painful final stage of life. Although the proposed law is better than what was in place before the Supreme Court of Canada ruled, it is very limited and will make physician assistance in dying unavailable to many people who desperately need it.
For example, C-14 will not allow people to give “advance consent” for physician assisted dying: consent must be given by individuals when they are in their final stage of life. This means that people with dementia will be excluded because they will not be competent to give consent when they are near death. But more than 30 per cent of people over 80 develop dementia.
I have a very close family member going through this right now. She can’t communicate and she is confused and scared and can’t take care of herself in any way. This has been going on for years, with no end in sight. I know without a shadow of a doubt that she would never have chosen this for herself. She told me on many occasions that she strongly supported physician assisted dying and told me to keep fighting for it.
We need a provincial government that will work for better end-of-life options. A recent poll by Ipsos Reid found 80 per cent of Canadians support advance consent for physician-assisted dying in such situations.
We need more supports for vulnerable people and protections for physicians who do not want to participate. We need a palliative care system that is comprehensive, compassionate and available to all.
There is excellent hospice care locally but there is often no space available. For example, at the time of writing there are eight people waiting for a room at Victoria Hospice – eight people who want hospice care, are at the very end of their life, but cannot access this critical service in their moment of greatest need.
It is well past time for the provincial government to engage broadly on such topics. To contribute to that process my constituency office will be organizing a panel discussion in June. If you would like to attend or find out the details, please contact my office.
Thank you for reading. I welcome your feedback. As always, please feel free to contact me if you have concerns with provincial matters or require assistance with the B.C. government. My phone number is 250-479-4154 and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m here if you need me.
Lana Popham is the MLA for Saanich South.