NEW YORK – Canada’s Catholic bishops have deemed the government’s decision to postpone an expansion to assisted suicide laws to include people suffering solely from mental illness “not good news,” citing the government’s unwavering commitment to the legislation.

The Canadian government announced Feb. 1 that it had introduced legislation to postpone the expansion to its assisted suicide law, formally Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), for three years. The expansion was set to go into effect March 17, 2024. It is now scheduled to go into effect March 17, 2027.

“The federal government’s decision to simply postpone legislation that would broaden the eligibility for ‘Medical Assistance in Dying,’ which is assisted suicide or euthanasia, to persons suffering solely from mental illness, is not good news,” Bishop William McGrattan of Calgary told Crux in a statement.

“Despite the opposition that has been voiced by mental health practitioners, disability groups, faith communities, and even several provincial Ministers of Health, the federal government remains fully committed to implementing this legislation, which received Royal Assent on March 9, 2023,” added McGrattan, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

MAID was enacted in 2016. The initial language of the law made people eligible for assisted suicide who “have a grievous and irremediable medical condition,” and for those whose “natural death” was “reasonably foreseeable.” However, in March 2021, the “reasonably foreseeable” language was repealed, thus expanding the law to allow any eligible person to pursue assisted suicide regardless if their natural death is reasonably foreseeable.

The 2021 expansion also included people with mental illness, but required a two-year study for experts to recommend the protocols and safeguards that should be followed. Now, the Canadian government has essentially extended that review of protocols and safeguards for another three years.

“Under Canada’s current MAID law, people suffering solely from a mental illness who meet all the eligibility criteria and safeguards would have been eligible for MAID as of March 17, 2024,” the Canadian government announced Feb. 1. “Important progress has been made to prepare for MAID eligibility for persons whose sole medical condition is mental illness.”

“However, in its consultations with the provinces, territories, medical professionals, people with lived experience and other stakeholders, the Government of Canada has heard – and agrees – that the health system is not yet ready for this expansion,” the announcement continues.

The extension, according to the government, provides more time for provinces to prepare their health systems for the expansion, including the development of policies, standards, guidance, and resources to provide MAID in situations where a person’s sole underlying condition is mental illness.

The Canadian government has also proposed the creation of a new joint parliamentary committee specifically to further study the MAID expansion.

Arif Virani, the Attorney General of Canada, said in a statement accompanying the government’s announcement that the postponement was necessary because “we must ensure our health care system is prepared to fully protect and support those who may be vulnerable.”

“After thoughtful consideration, we believe an additional extension, until March 17, 2027, is necessary,” Virani said. “The healthcare system must first be ready to safely provide MAID to persons whose sole medical condition is a mental illness before that access can be granted.”

Canada’s Catholic bishops have been steadfastly opposed to assisted suicide in all of its forms. In a Nov. 30 statement, the CCCB implied that government officials and outside organizations have applied pressure to Catholic Canadian healthcare institutions to perform assisted suicide.

The bishops, however, made it clear that the practice does not and will not take place.

Today, there are 129 Catholic healthcare providers across Canada, accounting for nearly 20,000 healthcare beds. These facilities are supported by 19 dioceses and 14 Catholic sponsors. They span across six provinces and 27 health regions and authorities.

“Euthanasia and assisted suicide (MAID) have always been, and will always be, morally unacceptable because they are affronts to human dignity and violations of natural and divine law,” the bishops said.  “Catholic healthcare affirms that every person, made in the image of God, has intrinsic value, regardless of ability or health.”

“For these reasons, we, the members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, unanimously and unequivocally oppose the performance of either euthanasia or assisted suicide (MAID) within health organizations with a Catholic identity,” the bishops continued. “We oppose efforts by governments or others to compel such facilities to perform MAID in violation of Catholic teachings.”

“Anything to the contrary would deeply betray the identities of these institutions as Catholic and would not be in keeping with the Church’s moral teachings on the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person,” the bishops added.

According to data published by the Canadian government, in 2022 there were 13,241 assisted suicide deaths, accounting for 4.1 percent of all deaths in the country. That 2022 figure represents a growth rate of 31.2 percent over 2021, when there were 10,092 assisted suicide deaths. The government data shows that between 2016 – when it was legalized – and 2022, there were 44,958 assisted suicide deaths.

By multiple accounts, these are among the highest figures in the world.

Opposed to MAID, Canada’s bishops advocate for a greater investment in mental health resources.

“With the threat of [assisted suicide] becoming available to Canadians whose sole medical condition is mental illness, we cannot emphasize enough how important it is for public healthcare to invest more in mental health resources,” the bishops said Nov. 30.

“This investment is urgently needed, not only because of the present mental health crisis in which needs far exceed resources, but because discouragement and despair can also result from this very scarcity of reachable, reliable, and robust support,” the bishops added.

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