Quebec's proposed right-to-die law passes first test in legislature

QUEBEC – Quebec’s landmark assisted-suicide bill, the first of its kind in Canada, has passed an early hurdle in the provincial legislature.

The bill, which would allow doctors to help end the life of some terminally ill patients, moved to committee for study after a vote of 84-26 Tuesday.

Veronique Hivon, the minister in charge of the bill, said the government wants to show the highest respect for the terminally ill.

“The public has placed high expectations on us,” she said, promising that the law would provide the “best response possible for their suffering.”

Euthanasia is illegal under the federal Criminal Code but the Quebec government has argued that this issue falls under provincial jurisdiction, as a health-care policy.

The issue is already before the courts. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has announced that it filed notice with the Supreme Court of Canada, asking it to hear an appeal of an earlier decision that upheld the law.

Under the proposed Quebec legislation, a commission on end-of-life care would be set up to advise the government and patients would have to meet several conditions before their life would be medically terminated.

The patient would have to be an adult, be capable of giving consent to care and be suffering from the advanced stages of a terminal illness.

They have to apply in writing for end-of-life treatment and that request could only be granted after the physician has made sure they meet all criteria, talked with their family or other immediate contacts and gotten a second medical opinion.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, who is a medical doctor, described the wording of the proposed law as “too vague.”

He said he understood the principle of the law, however.

“I myself have experienced these end-of-life situations repeatedly,” he said, referring to his years as a neurosurgeon.

He said he is “deeply” uncomfortable with the idea of legalizing a gesture causing death and called on the legislature to propose amendments to better define the concept of end-of-life to make recourse to lethal sedation truly exceptional.

Parties allowed their members to cast free votes on the bill, as is often the practice when parliamentarians are weighing an ethical issue.

Hivon denied the bill promotes euthanasia because the medical procedure would follow a request by a patient and be reserved for the hospital.

That didn’t impress Liberal Marguerite Blais, who called for improved palliative care.

“Medical aid to die is euthanasia,” she said.

The right-to-die has been a hot issue in other parts of Canada as well.

Earlier this month, the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld Canada’s ban on assisted suicide. Moments after the split decision was announced, lawyers for several respondents and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said they would seek to challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court of Canada.

They are now asking the country’s top court to expedite the case, out of respect for suffering patients.

And last month, a video by Donald Low, a dying doctor who once guided Toronto through the 2003 SARS crisis, made headlines for his impassioned arguments in favour of legalizing doctor-assisted suicide.

Assisted suicide is legal in other countries, such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as in Oregon and Washington in the United States.

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