Nova Scotia

Groups on both sides of assisted-death debate want more transparency

Advocates on both sides of the medically assisted dying debate say the Nova Scotia Health Authority should be more transparent about patients who apply to end their lives.

Nova Scotia Health Authority releases numbers, but no background information

Larry Worthen, spokesperson for the Coalition for Healthcare and Conscience, says the group is concerned about people choosing medically assisted dying because they don't feel supported enough. (Radio-Canada)

Advocates on both sides of the medically assisted dying debate say the Nova Scotia Health Authority should be more transparent about patients who apply to end their lives.

Though they hold opposing views on medically assisted death, Coalition for Healthcare and Conscience spokesperson Larry Worthen and the Nova Scotia co-ordinator for Dying with Dignity Canada Sheilia Sperry both say they need more than just raw numbers.

"I think it's important that we get to understand what it is all about," Sperry told Radio-Canada in an interview.

Sixty-seven Nova Scotians have requested medical assistance to die since Canada's assisted dying legislation was passed last June, with 31 receiving it.

No specifics

The health authority, which oversees assisted dying in the province, said there are several reasons why the remaining applicants may have not received the help they requested.

Those 36 applicants may have died while waiting for approval, may not have met the criteria, may have withdrawn their application or may still have an application in progress.

Sheilia Sperry is the co-ordinator for the Nova Scotia chapter of Dying With Dignity Canada. (Submitted by Sheilia Sperry)

The health authority could not immediately provide a breakdown of how many of the 36 applicants fell into each of those categories.

The Nova Scotia statistics on medical assistance with death include applications filed between June 17, 2016, and March 31, 2017.

Interested in the whys

Worthen, whose group represents 10 organizations that advocate for more palliative care and to keep medical workers from participating in medically assisted death against their will, said it would be good to know why people have made their decision.

"We're concerned that people may make the choice because they feel isolated or lonely or unsupported, and we don't think people should make this choice because society has let them down," he said.

"So we're very interested in not only hearing why people are not taking this route, but also hearing why people are taking this route, because it could very well be a symptom that there's something in society that needs to be fixed."

He said statistics from Oregon have shown, for instance, that some people in that state choose medically assisted dying because they don't want to be a burden on their family.

With more information Canada can assure it's helping people before they decide it's time to die, he said.

"Otherwise it's just state-sponsored suicide."

Close to the vest 

Sperry would like to see the number of people eligible for medically assisted dying increased but, like Worthen, she wants to see a clearer breakdown of the reasons behind the numbers.

"Nova Scotia Health Authority is very close to the vest on any information they're giving out," she said. "I really wish I did know more about how the system is working at [this] level."

Sperry said there's a federal report coming soon, but she's not hopeful that it will provide the information she's looking for.

"I would like us to be able to know numbers of how many people applied, how many people decided not to use it for their own reasons, how many people died before they could access it?" she said.

"I think these are important things for us to know."

CBC News has counted 1,324 medically assisted deaths in Canada through data requested from health ministries and coroners' offices in each province and territory. The actual number is likely higher, as some provinces were unable to provide up-to-date information.

With files from Radio-Canada and CBC's Frances Willick