Jonathan Marchand, left, and Jeff Preston.

Disability advocates find support from UN experts

  • February 2, 2021

Disabled Canadians are fighting for their lives and against legislation that paves the way for clean, quiet, anonymous suicides at the hands of medical professionals.

In the first round of hearings before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Feb. 1, Jonathan Marchand told Senators how Bill C-7 will only increase pressure that already exists for disabled people to take the first exit ramp, an argument backed up by three United Nations human rights experts.

“Disability should never be a ground or justification to end someone’s life, directly or indirectly,” said a statement from special rapporteurs Gerard Quinn, Olivier De Schutter and Claudia Mahler, who have been investigating Canada’s medical assistance in dying (MAiD) legislation on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. The three disability and legal scholars also testified before the Senate committee Feb. 1.

Bill C-7 will expand access to assisted dying in response to a 2019 Quebec Superior Court decision to make it possible for disabled people who are not facing imminent death to request a doctor’s help in killing themselves. It will also remove the requirement that patients be capable of consenting to the procedure at the moment lethal drugs are administered. The bill, which has already passed in the House of Commons, violates Canada’s obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the special rapporteurs said.

“Canada talks a big game when it comes to human rights, but we’re not even compliant with the Convention,” said Marchand. “What they’re proposing to do (in Bill C-7) is incredibly discriminatory. It only enshrines into the law that our lives are not worth living, that it’s OK to offer people with disabilities assistance to kill themselves while the rest of the population, we’re helping them to live.”

The law presumes that the lives of disabled people are not worth living, Marchand said.

“Canada takes very seriously its international human rights obligations, including those under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” justice department spokesman Ian McLeod told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “It is Canada’s position that Bill C-7 is consistent with these obligations. The proposed expansion of eligibility for MAiD is not based on negative stereotypes equating disability with loss of dignity of quality of life, but on the respect for the autonomy of all persons with a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability to choose MAiD as a response to intolerable suffering that cannot be alleviated by means acceptable to them.”

The problem is that the choice is not between death and full participation in society. Rather it’s either death or a life limited by poverty and a slim menu of services offered by provincial health systems, said King’s University College disability studies professor Jeff Preston.

“It ignores or it minimizes the brutal reality of ableism that is experienced by disabled people,” Preston said. “You are constantly being told that your life is hard, that your life is tough, that it sucks to be you, while at the same time having systems, government systems, support systems that also essentially make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Living on the bare minimum provided by the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) while having to beg for personal support workers, prosthetics and basic technology would seem designed to push people into opting for MAiD, he said.

“You can’t say that you’re going to provide people with a choice and then rig the system to get the outcome that you want. Not only is it not fair, but quite frankly, in this instance, I would say that it’s akin to murder.”

For eight years Marchand has been asking for supports that would allow him to live with muscular dystrophy, relying on a ventilator to breathe. So far, the Quebec government says it can only provide such support inside a long-term care institution.

“I was pressured to accept euthanasia before,” Marchand said. “This so-called choice I had was either death, assisted dying or to be trapped into the system for the rest of my life.” The 44-year-old refused the offer.

Canada’s existing assisted dying laws already violate the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a 2010 UN treaty which Canada signed, said Toujours Vivant-Not Dead Yet founder Amy Hasbrouck.

“It creates a situation where people without disabilities who say they want to die end up with suicide prevention services, whereas disabled people who want to die are given state assistance to kill themselves. That’s discriminatory (and) deprives people of the right to life,” said Hasbrouk.

At the very least, Hasbrouck wants the Senate to send C-7 back to the Commons with amendments that address the vulnerabilities of disabled people.

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