Glen Abernethy: Medical Assistance in Dying

June 6, 2016
Ministers' Statements and Speeches

Mr. Speaker, in February 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that certain provisions in the Criminal Code related to physician-assisted dying were unconstitutional. June 6th is the day the Supreme Court’s ruling takes effect across the country. Medical assistance in dying is an option for eligible Canadians.

Mr. Speaker, the NWT is ready to ensure residents can access this option if they request it. The Department of Health and Social Services has developed Interim Guidelines that set the rules for how medical assistance in dying will be requested and provided in the NWT.

Our priority is to protect both patients and health care providers involved in medical assistance in dying.  The Interim Guidelines establish eligibility criteria that patients must meet in order to access the service so that vulnerable people are protected. Patients must be at least 18 years of age, must be capable of making decisions with respect to their heath, and must have a terminal medical condition. Safeguards have also been established to ensure this service is provided in a safe, fair and caring manner.  Safeguards require that patients are assessed by two independent practitioners and that a mandatory reflection period passes before medical assistance in dying is provided.  The patient will have explicit opportunities to withdraw their request throughout the process. The Interim Guidelines also require that patients are informed of the alternatives to medical assistance in dying, such as palliative care, and that they expressly consent to the service before it is provided.

The Department has worked closely with a Steering Committee, which includes representatives from front-line health care provider associations, including the NWT Medical Association, Registered Nurses Association of the NWT and Nunavut, and the NWT Pharmacists Association.  We have also worked closely with the Department of Justice in the development of our Interim Guidelines.

Mr. Speaker, this can be a challenging issue for many of our residents. Medical assistance in dying is a deeply personal subject for many people. I want to reassure our residents that the Interim Guidelines do not compel health care providers to provide, or assist in the provision of, medical assistance in dying. Health care providers and patients always have the right not to participate. The Department has set up a Central Coordinating Service that will facilitate a patient’s access to willing Practitioners so that health care providers have the freedom to respect their conscience and religious or cultural beliefs.  Information on medical assistance in dying can be provided, but under no circumstances can this service be encouraged or recommended. If a request for medical assistance in dying is made, it must be made voluntarily.

Mr. Speaker, the Guidelines are only an interim measure.  The Department expects to propose a medical assistance in dying legislative framework for the NWT before the end of this fiscal year. The federal government’s future amendments to the Criminal Code will greatly influence our legislative framework and our final guidelines. The Department will also continue to work with the Steering Committee as we develop the proposed legislation. We expect the legislative framework will further address concerns raised by the public and allow us to further ensure values and culture are respected, alongside the right of patients to seek medical assistance in dying if they choose to do so.  

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.