Is it too much to ask people to follow through on previously expressed wishes for assisted death? An expert report suggests it may well be.
When Canada legalized medically assisted death in 2016, the legislation excluded a trio of particularly difficult circumstances, committing to studying them in detail over the following two years. Those reports—on advance requests, mature minors and cases where a mental disorder is the sole diagnosis—were authored by three panels of eminent experts from a variety of disciplines, and in spite of the resolutely neutral and delicate language in the documents, they make for deeply compelling reading.
Of the three complex circumstances, it is advance requests—which would allow someone to set out terms for their medically assisted death, to be acted on at a future point when they no longer have decision-making capacity because of dementia, for example—that have drawn the greatest interest and agitation for change.
The working groups behind the reports were not asked for recommendations, but rather to provide detailed information on how other countries have grappled with these issues, what a modified Canadian law would need to take into account and how fields like ethics, philosophy, health care and sociology might help us puzzle through these issues.
And while they explicitly take no position on what the government should do, a close reading of the evidence the expert panel gathered makes it virtually impossible to imagine that advance requests for Canadians could exist and be acted upon.
That is not because the will isn’t there; many people with dementia or other illnesses that will eventually consume their cognitive capacity profoundly desire some sense of deliverance and control of their ending, for reasons that are easy to understand.
It is not because requiring help with every task of daily living, or being unable to communicate one’s thoughts or conjure up the names of loved ones is not a real form of suffering; for many people, that is just as intolerable as the spectre of a physically painful death.
And putting advance requests into practice doesn’t seem prohibitive because people who want them would be unsure about where to draw their line; indeed, that threshold is glaringly obvious for those to whom it matters most, and robust documentation and communication with health care providers and family members could provide much-needed clarity.
Rather, the reason it seems virtually impossible that Canada could have—and, crucially, use—advance requests is because it is simply too heavy a burden for those tasked with deciding when to follow through on the previously expressed wishes of the person before them, once that person can no longer meaningfully speak up for themselves.
“Evidence from international perspectives suggests there may be marked differences between stated opinion on hypothetical scenarios and actual practice,” the report notes. In other words, while people generally understand why others want advance requests and broadly support their availability, almost no one can bring themselves to act on them.
“It’s to be expected that these will be heavy decisions to be made, and I’m not sure that we would want them to be light, either,” says Jennifer Gibson, chair of the working group that examined advance requests for medical assistance in dying (MAID), and director of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics.
Gibson’s group and the two other panels that examined MAID for mature minors and for people with a mental illness were chaired by former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps and convened by the Council of Canadian Academies, a non-profit organization that “supports independent, science-based, authoritative expert assessments to inform public policy development.”
What is striking in reading the report on advance requests is how profound and deeply human it is, and how quickly the debate becomes almost dizzyingly existential—much more so even than the issue of assisted death in general. “There’s this human experience that we’re all sharing. We’re all in that together—that we are mortal, that we will die, that we will lose loved ones in our lifetime,” Gibson says. “That unavoidable vulnerability sort of encapsulates a lot of these policy and clinical and legal discussions that are unfolding.”
The report delves into concepts like the meaning of personal autonomy; how we care for those we love by shouldering the responsibility of making decisions when they no longer can; the concept of suffering and who defines it; how we weigh the interests of the patient against what their doctor and family are asked to handle; and which safeguards might help reassure those gathered at the bedside who have to make a decision.
“We can think about it as burden, but it’s not just about burden—it’s also about care….there is no question that burden is part of what comes with uncertainty. These are excruciating decisions that someone has to make on behalf of someone who is no longer decisionally capable,” says Benjamin Berger, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and a member of the working group. “But a way of thinking about the burden is also, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’”
And a deeply conceptual sense of the self is central to the report: if in the present, you decide on and record a series of conditions under which you would no longer want to be alive, and you later become incapacitated, are your present and future selves the same person given how profoundly you’ve changed? If, once you are incapacitated, you appear perfectly content or even outright resistant to the MAID procedure you once requested, which version of you and which set of wishes and desires takes precedence, and why?
“Under what conditions might we expect that somebody would so radically lose those core compass points, if they lost capacity to make certain types of decisions, that they would become an entirely new person?” Gibson asks. “It is an existential question.”
And the report puzzles at length over this: can you really know from your present vantage point what your future self will want, how you might suffer or find joy in whatever your life looks like over the next horizon?
Research demonstrates that we are not very good at estimating what our quality of life would be if we fell ill or had some form of disability. This phenomenon, known as “the disability paradox,” is “pervasive,” the report notes. “The underestimation of quality of life by able-bodied or healthy people, rather than its overestimation by those living with a disability or chronic illness, drives the disability paradox,” the expert panel notes.
But again, in the debate over advance requests, this circles back to a deep concept of self: even if you are completely content once you are incapacitated, how much does that matter if your past, competent self loathed the notion of spending years in a long-term care facility needing help with every daily activity?
“Simply pointing to the idea that autonomy is respected and autonomy is important fails to wholly solve the most difficult issues in this field,” says Berger. “The question everybody is trying to ask is, understanding that autonomy is a core issue, what is the right method of ensuring that we respect autonomy?”
But for all of these sprawling legal, philosophical and ethical conundrums, it is when the report explores the experience of other jurisdictions with more experience practicing MAID or more liberal laws than Canada’s that the true difficulty in putting advance requests into practice for people with dementia becomes obvious.
Just four countries—Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands—allow advance requests for euthanasia in some form. However, “nearly all” of the information we have about advance requests in practice comes from the Netherlands, the report notes, because of “lack of implementation experience” in Colombia and Luxembourg, and very little detailed data available from Belgium.
The 2002 Dutch law that formally permitted the practice of euthanasia that had been going on for decades allowed for written advance requests for anyone aged 16 and older, in which they must clearly lay out what they consider unbearable suffering and when they would want euthanasia performed. Those would apply when people could no longer express their wishes and would have “the same status as an oral request made by a person with capacity,” the expert panel reports.
But while the annual reports from RTE, the regional review committees that govern euthanasia in the Netherlands, do not report the number of deaths due to advance requests, they do show that between 2002 and 2017, “all or most” of the patients who received euthanasia due to suffering from dementia were in the early stages of the disease and still had capacity to consent.
A study of 434 Dutch physicians between 2007 and 2008 found that while 110 had treated a patient with dementia who had an advance request, only three doctors had performed euthanasia in such a case (one doctor helped three people to die); all five of those patients too were “deemed competent and able to communicate their wishes.” The paper concluded that because doctors could not communicate with the patients otherwise, “Advance directives for euthanasia are never adhered to in the Netherlands in the case of people with advanced dementia, and their role in advance care planning and end-of-life care of people with advanced dementia is limited.”
Indeed, in 2017, a group of more than 460 Dutch geriatricians, psychiatrists and euthanasia specialists co-signed a public statement committing to never “provide a deadly injection to a person with advanced dementia on the basis of an advance request.”
And while family members of people with dementia support the idea of MAID if their loved one had an advance request, when it comes to acting on that, the majority—63 per cent in one study and 73 per cent in another—asked a doctor not to follow the request and actually provide euthanasia, but instead to simply forego life-sustaining treatment. “Some of the reasons given by relatives were that they were not ready for euthanasia, they did not feel the patient was suffering, and they could not ask for euthanasia when their loved one still had enjoyable moments,” the report explains.
Other Dutch studies show distinct contours in opinions on advance requests in cases of advanced dementia; the general public and family members of people with dementia view it more permissively than nurses and doctors, and doctors are most restrictive of all. “The authors of these studies hypothesized that this could be due to the different responsibilities of each group,” the working group wrote. “Physicians actually have to carry out a patient’s request, and when a patient cannot consent, this act comes with a heavy emotional burden.”
Here in Canada, the federal government has said it has no plans to alter the law to permit advance requests, even in the face of intense interest and pressure around the issue in a particular context a few months ago. In November, Audrey Parker, a vivacious Halifax woman with Stage 4 breast cancer, died by MAID two months earlier than she wanted to, because she feared cancer’s incursion into her brain might render her unable to provide final consent for the procedure if she waited. Parker spent her final months as the highly visible and compelling face of people like her, who are approved for MAID but forced to seek it earlier than they want to—or reduce badly needed pain medications—for fear they will lose the lucidity required to consent.
When it comes to concerns about determining when a patient with an advance request is ready for MAID, how clear their conditions are and whether they may have changed their mind if they can no longer communicate, the report suggest that cases like Parker’s would be the simplest and least controversial in which to permit advance requests. “These issues would likely not arise if a person wrote a request after they were already approved for MAID,” the working group notes. “In this case, they would be able to confirm their current desire for MAID themselves, and may even choose a date for the procedure.”
But when it comes to dementia—the condition which seems to inspire the strongest public desire for advance requests, and for which the disease trajectory is longer and more uncertain—the situation is much more difficult.
It is rarely useful to frame a public policy debate in terms of factions of winners and losers. But with the notion of advance requests for people with dementia, it is difficult to avoid the sense that in order for one group to get what it very understandably wants—a sense of control and escape from an existence that is at least as intolerable to some people as physical suffering—another group must shoulder a different sort of crushing burden—namely, the medical practitioners tasked with actually performing MAID and the family members or substitute decision makers who would have some role in sanctioning the procedure based on their loved one’s recorded wishes.
But Gibson argues that the solution to a heavy burden is not to make it light, but rather to ask what supports and measures would be required to bear it if such a thing were available in Canada. “And some members of the panel were really doubtful that anything would be sufficient to bridge those uncertainties, whereas others on the panel said, ‘I think we’ve got some experience with this, I think we could,’” she says. “There’s not going to be some external adjudicator to tell us we got it right.”
And while there is something distinctly fraught in decisions about MAID, she points out that families all over the country contend every day with life-and-death medical treatment decisions behalf of the people they love.
“It’s part of the ways in which we express love and caring for our loved ones, is we care for them even when they’re unable to care for themselves,” Gibson says. “We ought not to be surprised that these decisions are burdensome. And at the same time, they’re burdensome precisely because of these human connections that we have.”
The immense weight of these choices, then, is the price of admission for the bonds we share, and for the meaning we assign to life itself.
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