Number of Canadians choosing medically assisted death jumps 30%

There were 1,523 medically assisted deaths in Canada in the last six-month reporting period - a nearly 30 per cent increase over the previous six months.

Cancer was the most common underlying condition, cited in 65 per cent of cases

A woman holds the hand of her dying mother at a palliative care hospital in Winnipeg, July 24, 2010. More Canadians are choosing medically assisted death. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

There were 1,523 medically assisted deaths in Canada in the last six-month reporting period — a nearly 30 per cent increase over the previous six months.

Cancer was the most common underlying medical condition in reported assisted death cases, cited in about 65 per cent of all medically assisted deaths, according to the report from Health Canada.

Using data from Statistics Canada, the report shows medically assisted deaths accounted for 1.07 per cent of all deaths in the country over those six months. That is consistent with reports from other countries that have assisted death regimes, where the figure ranges from 0.3 to four per cent.

Since Quebec's assisted death law and the federal legislation came into force two years ago, 3,714 Canadians have received medical aid in dying.

"Our government recognizes the importance of ongoing monitoring and reporting on medical assistance in dying in order to provide a national picture of how it is being implemented across Canada," Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said in a statement.

Most Canadians who choose an assisted death are between 56 and 90 years old. The average age of those choosing medically assisted deaths during the reporting period was 73 years old.

In 2016, Netherlands reported that more than 80 per cent of its assisted deaths occurred at home. In Canada, the setting is usually a hospital (40.5 per cent of all assisted deaths) or a patient's home (43.3 per cent). Other assisted deaths took place in a long-term care or assisted living facility. 

Constitutional challenge to law

There were more cases of medical assistance in dying in larger urban centres (55.9 per cent) compared to areas with smaller populations (41.6 per cent).

Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of the advocacy group Dying With Dignity Canada, said she was not surprised to see the numbers increasing, but added the eligibility criteria remain too restrictive and many Canadians still face too many barriers to an assisted death.

Many Canadians die before the assessment process is complete, she said.

"If their health is already precarious, the longer it takes to get the help they need, the greater (the risk) is that they will lose capacity or die before they're able to complete their request."

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) filed a constitutional challenge to Canada's assisted dying legislation just 10 days after Bill C-14 was passed.

The group argues that the legislation, which requires a "reasonably foreseeable death," violates Canadians' charter rights.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Julia Lamb, a Chilliwack, B.C. woman with spinal muscular atrophy. She fears the deterioration of her body could cause years of unbearable physical and mental suffering, yet she would not be allowed to get a doctor's help in dying because her natural death is not "reasonably foreseeable."

The federal government launched independent reviews after the legislation passed to decide if it should be expanded to cover Canadians suffering only from mental illness, mature minors and those with competence-eroding conditions who want to make advance requests.

The Council of Canadian Academies is conducting the reviews and is scheduled to report back by December 2018.