Canadians whose sole condition is a mental disorder will not be eligible for a medically assisted death for another year under legislation introduced in the House of Commons Thursday.
Justice Minister David Lametti introduced the bill seeking to delay extending the eligibility until March 17, 2024.
“We need to be prudent. We need to move step by step, making sure that people within the profession, Canadian society at large, has internalized this step,” Lametti told reporters.
“To be honest, we could have gone forward with the original date, but we want to be sure. We want to be safe. We want everybody to be on the same page.”
The Liberal government agreed to expand eligibility in its 2021 update to assisted dying law after senators amended the bill. The senators argued that excluding people with mental illness would violate their rights.
That law put a two-year deadline on the expansion that is set to expire on March 17. The Liberals now have six weeks to pass the new legislation.
Lametti said he has agreement from the NDP and the Bloc Québécois to pass the bill in that short time frame. The Senate will also need to approve it.
Federal officials said that the delay will allow more time for the government to develop practice standards for assessing the more-complex assisted dying requests. The explanation was given during a technical briefing to media, provided on the agreement the officials would not be named.
Those standards will have to be adapted by provincial and territorial regulators and clinicians, a process that is currently expected to take place in March.
Officials said that an accredited medical assistance in dying curriculum is also being developed for clinicians. It is expected to be rolled out in the fall and completed by the end of the year.
They said the delay is also allowing it to better collect and report data on assisted dying cases.
New regulations that allow for “enhanced data collection” came into force at the beginning of the year. The data will go beyond simple demographic details to look at how alternative treatments were offered and considered before the assisted dying process.
Helen Long, CEO of advocacy organization Dying With Dignity Canada, said in a statement that keeping people with mental disorders from accessing assisted dying is “discriminatory and perpetuates the stigma that they do not have the capacity to make decisions about their own health care.”
Before Lametti tabled the bill, the group had urged the federal government to make the delay “short and effective.”
But Lametti said that not all were ready.
“We heard a number of different voices saying, ‘Slow this down,” he said.
“And at that point it became a question of how long. And those negotiations have led to where we are today.”
Conservative MP Michael Cooper said on Twitter that the delay is not enough and the “dangerous expansion” needs to be scrapped altogether.
Tories have argued that it is difficult for doctors to tell when a person’s suffering due to a mental disorder is past the point of treatment, so the policy could lead to avoidable deaths.
“One year won’t resolve the problems. Experts are clear that irremediability cannot be determined for mental illness,” Cooper said.
—David Fraser, The Canadian Press