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Canada’s new assisted suicide law is trying to prevent “suicide tourism”

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Canada's law legalizing physician-assisted suicide — which allows doctors to help terminally ill patients end their own lives — will only apply to people who live in Canada, according to the Associated Press. That means terminally ill Americans who live in one of the majority of American states that doesn't allow physician-assisted suicide won't be able to travel to Canada to end their lives.

When Canada's Supreme Court legalized assisted suicide for patients who have a "grievous and irremediable medical condition," it led to speculation that the country would become a destination for people from elsewhere looking for aid in dying comfortably.

That's what happened in Switzerland, one of four European countries with assisted suicide, even for patients who are not terminally ill. One study found that more than 600 people traveled to Switzerland between 2008 and 2012 in order to use the country's aid-in-dying laws.

By limiting aid in dying to Canadian residents, the Canadian laws, which are scheduled to be announced Thursday, make it much less likely that the country will get an influx of "suicide tourism." And the spread of aid-in-dying laws in the US means they might not need to. After California legalized physician-assisted suicide in October, one in six Americans now lives in a state where it's legal for doctors to help terminally ill patients end their own lives.

More details on Canada's law will be released later today, including whether it will apply to people suffering psychologically as well as physically, to children, and to people who are not terminally ill, as a parliamentary panel recommended in February.

Go deeper:

  • One of the most moving stories I've read about the right to die comes from Robin Marantz Henig in the New York Times magazine about Sandy Bem, a psychology professor at Cornell with Alzheimer's who chose the day she would end her own life, and the way her family came to terms with that fact. (Even in states with aid-in-dying laws, dementia is usually excluded.)
  • At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum, whose father-in-law ended his life while dying of bone cancer, writes about fighting the disease himself, weighing whether he should take his own life if it progresses.
  • When California legalized physician-assisted suicide, Vox's Sarah Kliff wrote a primer on how it works — including the fact that one-third of people who seek out drugs to kill themselves will never end up using them.