Canada’s death trap
Disability rights activists fear the effect of Canada’s new euthanasia bill on the already suffering disabled community
Canadian disability rights activist Taylor Hyatt was a preteen when she first heard the story of Tracy Latimer. In the fall of 1993, the 12-year-old daughter of a wheat and canola farmer in Wilkie, Saskatchewan, died under her father Robert’s care while her mother was at church. At first, Robert claimed Tracy had died in her sleep. But eventually the truth came out: He had funneled exhaust fumes into the cab of his truck, where Tracy sat until she died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Tracy had cerebral palsy, and Robert claimed his choice to kill her was an act of love toward a suffering child who was difficult to care for and had no hope of improvement.
Hyatt grew up more than a thousand miles away from where Tracy died, but the story hit close to home. Though she does not have the cognitive impairments that Tracy faced, Hyatt was born with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy and feels a sense of kinship: “Even if our conditions had vastly different effects, the label of our condition is the same.”
Now, almost three decades later, the Canadian government is in the process of making deaths like Tracy’s a social norm. On Thursday night, Canada’s House of Commons passed a version of bill C-7 to remove a requirement that a patient’s death be “reasonably foreseeable” to qualify for euthanasia. The latest version, which needs final approval from the Senate, would eventually allow patients with mental illness to obtain euthanasia. Critics say this expansion threatens the lives of people like Tracy and Hyatt who live with disabilities or other preexisting conditions. Rather than supporting them, it encourages them to die, worsening an existing trend in Canada.
“People with disabilities often encounter greater obstacles to individual choice than someone without a disability,” Hyatt said. Not only do they battle a common belief that it’s better to die than have a disability, but Hyatt said they also often face unwanted institutionalization because they don’t have the resources for in-home care.
Even those who can live independently face difficulties, including applying for mobility equipment and special housing. Hyatt uses a walker or wheelchair and relies on friends or public transportation to get places. She lives in an apartment with lowered counters, wide doorways, low light switches, and grab bars in the shower. It’s one of four wheelchair accessible residences in her apartment complex. To get it, she had to fill out a long application and have a doctor verify her condition. She said sometimes waiting lists for accessible apartments can be five to 10 years or more. And finding work to pay for such necessities can be tough for people with disabilities, Hyatt said. When she was forced to job hunt during the COVID-19 pandemic, available positions like construction or retail were simply impossible for her to fill as a wheelchair user.
The pandemic highlighted the particular struggles of people with disabilities in Canada. In September, Toronto’s CityNews reported many disabled people have been unable to afford food, medicine, and rent with the social assistance they received from the Ontario Disability Support Program. One woman who uses a feeding tube told CityNews she knew more than 50 people who applied for Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) program because they couldn’t afford to live. She said she considered applying herself, and six of her friends committed suicide during the pandemic. Hyatt sees the difficulty: “If you were on provincial social assistance, having to cover housing, bus pass, utilities, everything in $1,100 dollars a month—not many people can pull that off.”
Alex Schadenberg, international chair of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said many people with disabilities likely could access medically assisted suicide without the help of bill C-7. Some require life-sustaining treatment, and if they decline the drugs, death becomes imminent. That qualifies them for euthanasia under current law.
The government based bill C-7 on a 2019 ruling from the Quebec Superior Court that struck down the “reasonably foreseeable” requirement in the case of two patients with debilitating conditions. The government chose not to appeal, and the court gave the legislature six months to bring the law into compliance with the decision. The original deadline was in March 2020. Since then, the court has granted four extensions, the last of which expires on March 26.
Hyatt believes Canada should focus on improving the lives of people with disabilities instead of pushing them toward euthanasia, noting some people choose to die because they think they have no other choice. “Disabled people don’t have to die to be dignified,” she said. “The choice to die is not a choice at all.”
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