The Discriminatory Potential of Assisted Death Propositions


Candice Lewis is a 25 year old Newfoundland & Labrador woman reported to be living with a number of conditions, including spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and chronic seizure disorder. Lewis was in a St. Anthony hospital in November when a doctor allegedly began, unsolicited, to explain to her mother, Sheila Elson, that “assisted suicide death was legal in Canada.” Elson recalls that the doctor called her “selfish” when she expressed her lack of interest in that option. Lewis, who doubtless also had no interest in the assisted death option, overheard the conversation between her mother and the doctor and found it deeply distressing.

Physician assisted dying has been legal in Canada since June of last year. Eligibility criteria include that the patient has capably requested the treatment and is experiencing “enduring physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to them and that cannot be relieved under conditions that they consider acceptable.” Lewis was reportedly neither capable of nor interested in requesting assisted death. Sherry Gambin-Walsh, the Minister responsible for persons with disabilities has referred to the St. Anthony doctor’s behaviour as “not acceptable,” warning against the pitfalls of confusing disability with suffering.

Lewis’ experience exposes a conflict that can arise between equality rights of disabled persons and the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person that give rise to the right to die, if assisted death is proposed as a “treatment” option to permanently disabled individuals. It sheds light on the discriminatory potential of preemptively proposing physician assisted dying to a person with disability as a remedy for their presumed suffering. Once combined with ableism, the proposition of physician assisted death to a disabled person is unlikely to be received as a gentle or neutral reminder of their right to die with dignity, but a suggestion fraught with indignity and associations to the harms and rights infringements of historical eugenics programs.

This blog post was written by a CCLA summer legal volunteer. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA.

About the Author

Amara McLaughlin-Harris
Amara is a University of Toronto law student. She came to the CCLA as a volunteer with the support of U of T's Student Law Society Fellowship program and covers news from Alberta and Newfoundland & Labrador for Rights Watch Blog.