I’m indebted to Alex Schadenberg at Canada’s Euthanasia Prevention Coalition for this week’s column, since he not only did all the research but a fair chunk of the number crunching.
You may or may not know that it’s been frustratingly difficult to obtain information on euthanasia and assisted suicide since Canada legalized “medical assistance in dying” in June 2016. Trying to find out how many people are euthanized or “assisted” in dying is like trying to estimate how many traffic jams take place each day in Vancouver. It’s not at the top of anyone’s list of things to do.
News organizations have no interest in knowing how many Canadians are dying by assisted suicide. I wrote in March that the most recent data we had was from 2017 and it was still unclear how many people were legally killed in 2018.
So slow was the federal government in releasing data that the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition requested “Medical Aid in Dying” data from every province. Most of them refused to provide it.
So the EPC did its own investigative research. Based on a presentation for the Royal Society of Canada by Jocelyn Downie, an academic euthanasia activist, the EPC reported 4,235 “Medical Aid in Dying” euthanasia deaths in 2018, an increase of 50 per cent over 2017 and representing approximately 1.5 per cent of all deaths in Canada.
Schadenberg also examined data from Ontario and Alberta indicating a 78 per cent increase in Ontario euthanasia deaths and a 50 per cent increase in Alberta.
Finally, at the end of April, Health Canada released the Fourth Interim Report on Medical Assistance in Dying, which stated there were 2,614 assisted deaths in 2018.
Unfortunately, the data was short by two months (it only reported up to Oct. 31, 2018) and didn’t include four jurisdictions (Quebec and the three territories.) Based on that limited information, the report drew the conclusion that assisted deaths represented 1.12 per cent of all deaths in Canada.
Now it turns out Health Canada not only gave us inaccurate numbers, its analysis of them was wrong.
The Canadian data came under scrutiny by Richard Egan, a researcher with Australian Care Alliance, who said the report’s calculation of the percentage of deaths by euthanasia as 1.12 per cent was wrong and should have been quite a bit higher.
Egan explains: Health Canada used data for the total number of deaths in Canada, but only counted assisted suicide deaths in the jurisdictions it had data on … which excluded Quebec and the territories. An accurate percentage of deaths by euthanasia based only on reporting provinces is actually 1.47 per cent. That may not seem like much of a difference, but it’s a 30-per-cent error rate and represents hundreds of more dead people.
That figure also more closely matches the data reported by Jocelyn Downie, whose numbers put the euthanasia rate at 1.5 per cent.
Egan published further research on the data in an article published by Australian Care Alliance.
Among the provinces, euthanasia deaths as a percentage of all deaths varies widely, with British Columbia at 2.37 per cent of all deaths and as high as 3.6 per cent on Vancouver Island. That’s nearly three times as deadly as Saskatchewan (0.84 per cent of all deaths). But “Health Canada does not appear overly concerned about the quality of the Medical Aid in Dying report,” says Schadenberg.
And when some of its data is so wrong and outdated, how can we trust government to get its response – comprehensive palliative care – correct?
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