Canada is postponing a plan to offer people suffering from mental illnesses the option of a medically assisted death, two cabinet ministers said on Monday.
The announcement by Mark Holland, the health minister, and Arif Virani, the justice minister, came after a special parliamentary committee looking into the plan concluded that there are not enough doctors, particularly psychiatrists, in the country to assess patients with mental illnesses who want to end their lives and to help them do so.
“The system needs to be ready, and we need to get it right,” Mr. Holland told reporters. “It’s clear from the conversations we’ve had that the system is not ready, and we need more time.”
Neither minister offered any timeline for the latest extension. Following an earlier delay, the expansion had been scheduled to come into effect on March 17.
Canada already offers medically assisted death to terminally and chronically ill people, but the plan to extend the program to people with mental illnesses has divided Canadians.
Some critics say the plan is a consequence of the inability of Canada’s public health care system to offer adequate psychiatric care, which is chronically underfunded and facing demand that outstrips its availability.
Many psychiatrists say the plan would undermine efforts to prevent suicide, and they have expressed fear that patients with complex problems will abandon treatments that can take years to achieve results in favor of a medically assisted death.
Supporters say that denying people with mental illnesses the option to end their suffering through death is a form of discrimination.
Canada introduced medically assisted dying after its Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that requiring people to cope with intolerable suffering infringed on fundamental rights to liberty and security.
The law was expanded in 2021 after the Superior Court of Quebec struck down the government’s original assisted death law on constitutional grounds because it only applied to people whose deaths were “reasonably foreseeable.”
The 2021 law expanded eligibility to people experiencing “grievous and irremediable” conditions. Its separate provisions for people with mental illnesses, which were added to the law by Canada’s unelected Senate, were originally postponed for two years.
Members of the opposition Conservative Party have charged that the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promoting a “culture of death.” Some politicians on the left have also opposed the expansion for mental illnesses and have said they want to focus on further expanding psychiatric care.
Michael Cooper, a Conservative member of Parliament who sat on the special committee, said the government should make the postponement indefinite.
“I don’t see any indication that the fundamental issues that are at the heart — or should be at the heart — of putting a pause on this expansion will be resolved,” he said.
Dying with Dignity Canada, a group that advocates for the right to medically assisted death, said in a statement that it was “disheartened” by the latest delay.
The health and justice ministers said the new implementation date would be included in legislation, soon to be introduced, that will formally extend the delay.
About 13,200 Canadians had an assisted death last year, a 31 percent increase over 2021, according to a report by the federal health department. About 3.5 percent of those patients were not terminally ill but had other qualifying medical conditions.
Both Canada and the United States have a three-digit suicide and crisis hotline: 988. If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 and visit 988.ca (Canada) or 988lifeline.org (United States) for a list of additional resources. This service offers bilingual crisis support in each country, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.