Federal minister says she's 'shocked' by suggestion of assisted deaths for some babies

Canada's minister of disability inclusion says she's offended by a Quebec doctor's suggestion that infants less than a year old should have access to medically assisted death if they are unlikely to survive and are dealing with severe health issues.

Qualtrough says she hears regularly of people with disabilities seeking death due to lack of supports

Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland and Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough hold a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's minister of disability inclusion says she's offended by a Quebec doctor's suggestion that infants less than a year old should have access to medically assisted deaths if they are unlikely to survive and are dealing with severe health issues.

"I find that completely shocking and unacceptable. I would never support going down that road," Carla Qualtrough said in an interview with CBC Radio's The House.

The idea was raised earlier this month at a parliamentary committee hearing reviewing the federal law that governs medical assistance in dying.

Dr. Louis Roy, of Quebec's College of Physicians, said his group believes assisted death could be offered to babies up to one year old "with severe deformities and very serious syndromes for which the chances of survival are virtually nil, and which will cause so much pain that a decision must be made to not allow the child to suffer."

A single mom in B.C. describes living on provincial disability benefits and Minister Carla Qualtrough outlines her concerns with MAID and the disability community, as well as a bill to help lift people with disabilities out of poverty.

Qualtrough, who is legally blind, said that while she can't speak on behalf of the entire government, "there is no world where I would accept that."

People often make incorrect assumptions about the quality of life that someone with a disability experiences, she said.

Extending assisted death to infants is not one of the topics the parliamentary committee has been tasked with exploring — although it is reviewing whether the practice should be available to so-called "mature minors" who would be old enough to offer informed consent.

That work was supposed to have been completed by now, but the committee has received an extension and will now have until February 17 to hand over its findings to Parliament.

Qualtrough also said she hears frequently that some people with disabilities are seeking assisted deaths because they can't find adequate housing or sufficient care.

"Working with the disability community and hearing very regularly that people's options around MAID are being driven by lack of social supports is devastating," she said.

The federal government first passed a law making a doctor- or nurse practitioner-assisted death legal in 2016. It did so because the Supreme Court of Canada had overturned the existing ban on medically assisted death.

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Canadians who weren't already nearing death became eligible for MAID in 2021, when the government changed the law in response to a lower court ruling. That change allows people with "grievous and irremediable" medical conditions who are experiencing "intolerable suffering" to seek a doctor's help to die — even if their natural deaths are decades away.

Qualtrough said it should not be easier to access a medically assisted death than to get a wheelchair — but it is.

Before the law changed, the federal government was warned by many disability advocates of the risk of disabled people seeking assisted deaths because inadequate supports left them feeling they had no other options.

In 2020, Inclusion Canada, an organization that works on behalf of Canadians with intellectual disabilities, said that the changes were the group's "worst nightmare" and a "moral affront."

Speaking to The House, Qualtrough said that while people can't be denied access to assisted death because they're living in poverty, she is keen to see the recommendations the parliamentary committee comes up with on improving safeguards.

"There's a requirement in the law to make sure people know of the services and supports available to them, but there's no obligation to help them access those services and there's no obligation to provide those services," she said. Most available supports for those with disabilities are provided at the provincial level, she added.

"I'm very concerned about the messages that people are getting from this, that somehow a life lived with disability is is worse than death," she said. 

"It's not what I believe."

Canada Disability Benefit in the works

In June, Qualtrough reintroduced a bill to establish a benefit for low-income, working-age Canadians with disabilities. The House of Commons voted unanimously to send the bill to committee — but the timeline is still being criticized by opposition members, who note the Liberals first promised the benefit in the 2020 throne speech. 

The proposal for the benefit also lacks details, including how much recipients will receive, who will qualify and when the money will start being distributed to those in need.

Qualtrough said she believes a benefit to help lift people with disabilities out of poverty is long overdue. She insisted it will take time to enact a bill she called a "once-in-a-generation" change to the country's social safety net.

"There's a phenomenon within the disability community [where] people celebrate their 65th birthday because poverty rates drop in half, because all of a sudden there's social support," she said, referring to programs such as Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low-income seniors.

"You shouldn't have to wait until you're 65 to have that kind of financial security. This is what the Canada Disability Benefit is trying to do, close that gap [for] the 18-year-old to the 64-year-old living with poverty who has a disability."

Qualtrough said she deliberately chose to work out the details of the benefit — such as eligibility and amount — in regulatory meetings where politicians can hear directly from the disability committee. She also stressed the need to ensure a federal benefit doesn't result in local supports being reduced.

"I have to be very careful in those conversations [with provinces] so as not to have them tomorrow reduce what they give people, knowing that we're going to top it up. Or they decide to start not providing a particular service because eventually the federal government is going to give people enough money that they can pay for it themselves," said Qualtrough.

WATCH | Qualtrough discusses new proposed benefit:

Minister Qualtrough says she's ‘hell-bent’ on getting disability benefits out

2 months ago
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Employment and Diversity Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough says negotiations with provinces will be a ‘game changer’ in terms of delivering benefits to people with disabilities as soon as possible. “We can’t have anything clawed back,” she said.

Even assuming the bill gets through Parliament, Qualtrough said she estimates it would take 12 months of regulatory discussions before the benefit lands in the pockets of low-income Canadians with disabilities — Canadians like Shauna Milne.

Milne is a single mother of two teenage boys who lives in a basement suite in Surrey, B.C. Between provincial disability payments, child support and the Canada Child Benefit, she receives approximately $3,200 per month. 

But about half of Milne's income goes to rent and utilities. Regular bills for things like cell phones, transportation and food — along with emergency expenses — regularly drain her bank account below zero.

B.C. resident Shauna Milne relies on her province's disability assistance program to support her and her two sons. She says it's not enough and her family sometimes misses meals because of a lack of funds. (Jodie Martinson/CBC Vancouver)

Milne said that food is the only part of her budget that offers some wiggle room for cuts when times are especially tight.

"The biggest thing that gets cut now is our food," she said. "That is the only optional thing. That's the only thing that is flexible enough for me to cut."

Milne is diabetic and suffers from nerve damage in her limbs because of the disease. She's had seven surgeries on her right leg and uses a cane to walk. Earlier this year, she successfully applied for B.C.'s Disability Assistance program.

But the family still relies on gift cards from her son's school to buy groceries, and she carefully measures out food portions to ensure their supplies last for as long as possible.

"I am living an everyday life in a major city and I can't survive. Has life been hell? Yeah. Did I ever expect to be raising my kids below the poverty line? No," she said.

"The government can make changes. We should not have kids going to bed hungry in Canada."


Catherine Cullen

Senior reporter

Catherine Cullen is host of CBC Radio's The House and a Senior Reporter on Parliament Hill.

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