In 1999, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a pathologist from just outside Detroit, Michigan, rose to international fame following a second-degree murder conviction for euthanizing a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Throughout the 1990s, Kevorkian provided physician-assisted suicide to more than 130 people. He spent nearly a decade in prison and used his remaining years to campaign for legal euthanasia. Today, if you ask folks from southeast Michigan what they remember about the Kevorkian case, most will shake their heads in disbelief that it went on as long as it did before he was tried and convicted. Just miles from where Kevorkian was convicted, the Ambassador Bridge connects Detroit to Windsor, Canada. On the US side of the bridge, talk of euthanasia brings back memories of “Dr. Death,” whose case led to the Michigan Supreme Court ruling that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide or euthanasia. On the other side, the Canadian Parliament is working to enshrine the crimes committed by Kevorkian as a constitutional right nationwide.
In 2016, the Canadian Parliament passed Bill C-14, legalizing euthanasia for those experiencing an “enduring and intolerable suffering” and whose deaths are “reasonably foreseeable.” The bill did not use the words “euthanasia,” “physician-assisted suicide” or any of the other terms commonly used to describe the practice whereby a doctor helps to end a human life before their natural death. Instead, the legislation refers to the practice as “medical assistance in dying (MAiD).” The phrase is just vague enough to obscure the reality of the legislation and just specific enough to pique the interest of those whose conditions have left them in despair. “Medical assistance in dying” doesn’t specify who administers the lethal drugs, nor does the legislation define “enduring and intolerable suffering.” In 2021, Bill C-7 expanded MAiD to include eligibility for people living with mental illnesses. In short, if your condition, whether physical or mental, is costly and frustrating for a broken healthcare system, it is easier (and cheaper) to let you die.
It's hard not to wonder how things in Canada got so bad. Rosalyn Mitchell, Co-Director of Rehumanize Toronto, sees the gradual shift in language as partially responsible for allowing the legislation to come this far. “MAiD is a construction to soften the language,” she said. Words matter, and with MAiD, the tip of the arrow is blunted; something that is on its face horrific has been transformed into something benign through deliberately opaque wording. Hearing someone explain that their family euthanized an ailing relative lands much differently than hearing the person received “medical assistance in dying.”
Unfortunately for the legislation’s architects and proponents, not everyone in Canada has been fooled. Mitchell noted that for the first time in recent history, a cross-cultural, politically diverse coalition of voices is coalescing around a common concern. “The main architects of euthanasia are finding pushback, even in the mainstream press, in the liberal press,” Mitchell explained. “You find people from the social democratic NDP (National Democratic Party) working with conservative party representatives,” she continued. “You find disability rights activists linking with very religious people even if they disagree on other issues.”
This widespread pushback has not gone unnoticed. Shortly after the rollout of Bill C-7, which expanded eligibility for MAiD, the Canadian government announced that it would postpone the expansion until March of 2024. In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Madeline Li, a leading proponent of MAiD who has overseen “hundreds of medically assisted dying cases,” expressed concern about the vagueness of the legislation, stating that “it is not specific enough to protect people.” As far as Mitchell is concerned, MAiD’s public image has taken a massive hit following the passing of Bill C-7. “If you had a referendum on MAiD today, I think you would have a public rejection because of how far it has gone,” she remarked. Canadian newspapers from both the left and right routinely express concern that Parliament is doing too much too quickly, and it takes only a quick Google search to find horror stories that include folks choosing MAiD due to lack of housing, healthcare, and financial resources. This is giving Canadians from all walks of life pause as they ask themselves if they really want the sort of culture that values the right to death over the right to life.
For Mitchell and many others in Canada, the natural outcome of MAiD — especially given the move to expand the legislation — is eugenics. While none of the architects of the pro-euthanasia movement or the MAiD legislation are known to have openly eugenicist views, Mitchell believes that some people simply have short-sighted compassion. “I think people in their minds see suffering, and we want to alleviate suffering; we value human autonomy and choice, and that’s the end of it,” she said, “but they don’t realize that once you start legislating for allowances, it will open itself up to a eugenics project, and that’s what we’re seeing now if mentally ill people are allowed to legally access euthanasia and assisted suicide.”
While eugenics may not have been what motivated MAiD’s creation, Parliament continues to expand eligibility and the horror stories that are piling up reveal alarming outcomes. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, 61-year-old Alan Nichols was euthanized following a mental health crisis in 2019, but somehow, the condition listed for which he received MAiD was hearing loss. Amir Farsoud, an Ontario resident living with chronic pain, nearly received MAiD in late 2022 after learning he would lose his affordable housing and become homeless. After a GoFundMe raised more than $60,000 CAD to help him find stability, Farsoud decided against euthanasia. The Toronto Star reported in December of 2022 that Canadian Paralympian Christine Gauthier was offered MAiD rather than receive the wheelchair ramp she needed for her home. She had fought for the ramp for five years.
If the MAiD legislation isn’t about discarding the vulnerable and saving money, then many in the Canadian medical establishment have a lot to explain. The Associated Press broke the story of Roger Foley, a man living with a degenerative brain disease, who secretly recorded his visit with a medical ethicist at a London, Ontario hospital. The physician offered Foley MAiD, reminding him that he was racking up a bill “north of $1,500 a day.” Foley’s doctor isn’t the only one with money on the brain. The Canadian Medical Association Journal published a report that predicted the medical system stands to save between $34.7 and $136.8 million CAD annually. When some are choosing to die rather than become homeless or continue to live with chronic conditions that could be alleviated within a functioning healthcare system, one must ask what other word exists for the way the medical establishment casts its vulnerable into the grave.
Canadian society must eventually ask itself what comes next. In Amir Farsoud’s case, a total stranger intervened in what she saw as the senseless, imminent death of a man who deserved life, and as the community rallied around him, his despair lifted. The curtain has been pulled back on MAiD, and thanks to bold reporting and brave storytelling, we know the depths of human suffering that many endure. Whether Canadian society can recognize this chapter in its history as a cautionary tale and change course remains to be seen. Until then, we must continually respond to a culture of death with a fierce declaration that all have a right to life.