British Columbia·A Good Goodbye

Rules requiring 2 independent witnesses create roadblocks to assisted death

Federal legislation requires two independent witnesses for an assisted death request. According to assisted death advocates, this can create a barrier for the severely ill and elderly who are often living in social isolation.

According to federal legislation, family members often do not qualify to be independent witnesses

Ellen Agger is the co-chair of the Victoria chapter of Dying with Dignity and she says being an independent witness to a stranger's assisted death request can be both humbling and rewarding. (Ellen Agger)

It is an unexpected barrier to assisted death. 

When the federal legislation for medical assistance in dying (MAiD) was passed in June of 2016, the patient's request required two independent witnesses.

Ellen Agger, the co-chair of the Victoria chapter of Dying with Dignity Canada, says some people have no one to ask to be an independent witness. 

"Frequently, but not always, people are quite elderly," Agger said. "They may have lost a lot of their friends already."

Adding to the challenge are the stringent rules surrounding assisted death legislation dealing with restrictions on independent witnesses, including forbidding anyone who benefits under the the patient's will.  

"This would preclude a number of family members," Agger said. 

Agger adds that someone providing personal or health care services cannot be an independent witness either. 

"So, if the person is living in a longterm care facility, they cannot ask a nurse who looks after them to be a witness to their request."

Learning to be an independent witness

The Victoria chapter of Dying with Dignity has been working closely with local MAiD providers, and they have developed an independent witness webinar for interested volunteers. 

Agger says the role of the independent witness is simply to confirm the identity of the patient and to understand their request for an assisted death.

"It's important to be respectful and it's difficult to not feel like you are intruding, but, at the same time, people are extremely grateful you are doing this for them."

Agger does, however, caution that volunteers have to maintain an emotional distance from patients. 

"They might want to thank you, but they also might want some emotional support, but that's not our job to do that."

Dr. Stefanie Green, a MAiD provider in Victoria, says there is a real need for independent witness volunteers. 

"Often patients who are at the end of their life and who are considering assisted death are quite isolated socially," Green said. 

"They've been ill for a while, and they are often in a facility or quite isolated at home. And for them to be able to find an independent witness is not always simple."

Humbling and rewarding experience

Dr. Green describes the independent witness volunteers as outstanding.

Agger has been an independent witness 16 times and she says the experience is both humbling and rewarding.

"Sometimes, the people we witness for are very, very frail. And their mortality is staring them in the face, but it is also staring you in the face."

Agger adds that it's important for volunteers to debrief after what can be a very intense experience with a stranger. 

To hear more, click on the audio link below:

A Good Goodbye is a radio and digital series exploring medically assisted death in B.C. Tune into your local CBC Radio One morning show Jan. 29–Feb. 1. 

About the Author

Jean Paetkau

Associate producer, CBC Victoria

Jean Paetkau is an award-winning writer who works as an associate producer for CBC Victoria. Her work includes writing for digital, TV, radio and print.