Bill C-7 is a matter of life and death for persons with disabilities


By cavalierly hurrying through Parliament and limiting debate on legislation to expand access to assisted suicide in Canada (Bill C-7), the Canadian government is fast-tracking the deaths of persons with disabilities.

Up until now, medical assistance in dying (MAiD) has been limited to those at the end of their lives. Similar to palliative care and other medical end-of-life options, the Canadian MAiD regime aims to safeguard the principle of equality by ensuring that all dying Canadians have an option for a peaceful and painless death. A death without excruciating suffering is something that most Canadians, including those with disabilities, want to take for granted. For context, Canada’s end-of-life MAiD regime is more permissive than in virtually any other country.

Beyond the end-of-life context, there are no other circumstances where the government promotes, encourages, enables, accepts, tolerates or is otherwise involved in the deaths of its citizens. This, too, is equality-affirming. The government signals that the lives of all individuals are essential – that they have equal value and an equal ability to enrich the Canadian fabric.

Through Bill C-7, however, the government is seeking to expand MAiD beyond “end-of-life circumstances” for Canadians with grievous and irremediable illnesses and disabilities whose suffering is intolerable to them. Put coarsely, the government will enable the deaths of persons with disabilities in circumstances where their life expectancy is otherwise open-ended. It is taking this unprecedented step solely on the basis of one non-binding trial court decision that it has refused to appeal.

No other Canadian group, no matter the suffering of its individuals, is considered expendable and offered MAiD by the government because of its personal characteristics. It would be barbaric for the government to offer MAiD exclusively to any other marginalized minority, such as persons of Indigenous descent, whose intolerable suffering is caused by historical institutional and social failures. Why should it be less barbaric to offer MAiD exclusively to persons with disabilities, whose suffering disproportionately results from a lack of social assistance and institutional support?

For this reason, disability-rights organizations are essentially unanimous in their opposition to Bill C-7. Yes, some individuals with disabilities suffer; some would request access to MAiD if offered the opportunity. But so would many other individuals in marginalized groups. This doesn’t mean the government should target these groups as recipients of MAiD instead of addressing the underlying structural factors causing their suffering. On the whole, the empirical evidence confirms that if provided appropriate support, the lives of persons with disabilities are as rich and happy as those of any other individuals.

By expanding MAiD for Canadians with disabilities (but not for other Canadians), the government sends the powerful and discriminatory message that Canadians with disabilities – and only these Canadians – are unessential. By rushing the debate on MAiD, the government sends the further message that it doesn’t care.

The government’s reckless approach will in turn fuel the existing stereotypes that the lives of persons with disabilities have less value than the lives of others, that persons with disabilities are better off dead, that they are a burden on the state and their loved ones, and that they have a lousy quality of life. Already, these stereotypes disproportionately lead persons with disabilities to commit suicide, just as similarly pernicious stereotypes lead other minorities to do so.

If adopted, Bill C-7 will discriminate against persons with disabilities under section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and bring Canada in conflict with its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is not a desirable outcome.

Let’s take our time debating this issue and coming to the right conclusion. For persons with disabilities, this is literally a matter of life and death.

Nicolas Rouleau is a constitutional and appellate lawyer who has represented Inclusion Canada and the Council for Canadians with Disabilities