Nfld. & Labrador

'Not acceptable': Minister blasts suggestion of assisted suicide for person with disability

A doctor allegedly suggested a mother end her disabled daughter's life, and the Minister responsible for persons with disabilities is speaking out.

Group advocating for persons with disabilities says more education needed. demands apology

Sherry Gambin-Walsh, right, the minister responsible for persons with disabilities, says she's shocked that a doctor would suggest Candice Lewis, left, should have her life ended. (CBC)

The Minister responsible for persons with disabilities is speaking out after a St. Anthony doctor allegedly advised a mother to end the life of her disabled daughter.

"This is not acceptable," Sherry Gambin-Walsh told CBC Radio's On The Go Wednesday.

"It's not acceptable to government, it's not acceptable to the individual citizens, families or our society. Disability is not to be confused with suffering."

Sheila Elson told CBC last week that, during a hospital stay in St. Anthony, a doctor said her 25-year-old daughter was dying, and that Elson had the option to end her life.

"His words were [that] assisted suicide death was legal in Canada," Elson said.

"I was shocked and said, 'Well, I'm not really interested,' and he told me I was being selfish."

Candice Lewis, Elson's daughter, has several medical conditions, including spina bifida, cerebral palsy and chronic seizure disorder.

Sheila Elson's daughter Candice suffers from several medical conditions such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy and chronic seizure disorder. Elson said last November, a doctor in St. Anthony suggested she should consider assisted suicide for Candice. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

A spokesperson for the province's health department says Dr. Aaron McKim, Newfoundland and Labrador's medical consultant for medical assistance in dying, is now reviewing the situation and will make recommendations.

While Canada has legalized physician-assisted deaths, certain stipulations exist. For instance, the request has to come from the individual themselves — not a doctor — and Elson said her daughter doesn't have the capacity to make such a decision.

Patient must request service

According to provincial Health Minister John Haggie, of the 14 people who have sought medically assisted death in Newfoundland and Labrador, nine have been approved to avail of the service.

While Haggie said he can't comment on the specifics of the case in St. Anthony due to privacy legislation, his department is looking into the matter.

Health Minister John Haggie says his department is looking into what happened in St. Anthony, but is bound by privacy legislation and can't comment specifically on Candice Lewis's case at this time. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Once the facts of the case are determined, Haggie said the department will look at whether or not the actions of the doctor were in line with the requirements of Bill C-14 — which lays out very specific rules, such as requiring the patient to personally request assisted death.

"The patient has to request it, it's very clear in the act," he said.

More education needed: disability group

For Emily Christy, the head of the province's Coalition of Persons with Disabilities, the incident is jarring. 

"I was shocked and terrified that this was actually happening in our province, and I think it's the biggest issue — and a point of concern around medical aid and dying that the disability community has," she said.

Emily Christy, the executive director for the Coalition for Persons with Disabilities Newfoundland and Labrador, says medical professionals need more training around the guidelines for medically assisted dying. (Eddy Kenney/CBC)

Christy said Elson and Lewis both deserve an apology, and health care professionals need to be better informed about the rules around assisted dying.

"A major educational overhaul needs to happen within the medical profession and the provincial government needs to take the lead on making sure this happens," she said.

For Gambin-Walsh, who also has a 21-year-old with complex disabilities, disability and suffering are two very different things. 

"As a mom, I can't imagine. I would be appalled and disappointed, and I would have to collect my thoughts to determine how I was going to deal with it," she said of Elson's story.

"Disability can not, and will not, be used in discussions about medical assistance in dying.

With files from On The Go