Doctor-assisted death debate gets new life, thanks to Quebec

Twenty years after the terminally ill Sue Rodriguez lost a Supreme Court battle to obtain the right to an assisted suicide, a first province is poised to make the option available throughout its health-care system.

Twenty years after the terminally ill Sue Rodriguez lost a Supreme Court battle to obtain the right to an assisted suicide, a first province is poised to make the option available throughout its health-care system.

In a move designed to circumvent federal opposition to assisted suicide, Quebec could bring in a law adding the right to a medically assisted death to its end-of-life protocol before the end of the year.

Under the proposed regime, Quebec patients in a health predicament similar to Rodriguez or, more recently, Gloria Taylor, who both fought in court for the right to a physician-assisted death at a time of their choosing, would be granted their wish as a matter of provincial health policy.

On Monday, a Quebec committee of legal experts reported on the avenues available to the province to move on a file that has long been deemed to fall squarely under federal authority.

In an exhaustive report, they concluded that Quebec’s constitutional jurisdiction over health care gives it the latitude to bypass the current Criminal Code ban on assisted suicide, provided that the option is offered within a well-defined medical framework.

A terminally ill patient would have to take the initiative of requesting medical assistance to terminate his or her life.

That assistance would only be made available to patients who are mentally competent and whose resolve has been tested over a cooling-off period of a few weeks.

No doctor or nurse could be forced to act against his or her conscience but the province’s health-care institutions would have to ensure that the medical assistance required to end one’s life is available to those who meet the terms set out to obtain it.

In a different political environment, the Quebec initiative could help resolve a discussion that increasingly pits a majority of Canadians against federal legislators.

By recasting the issue as a medical care one, the committee is ultimately offering the federal government a way to leave the initiative to provincial authorities.

But in the real world of 2013 Canadian politics, implementing the expert panel’s prescriptions will almost certainly lead to a collision between Quebec and Stephen Harper’s government.

It has been long-standing federal policy to fight any attempt to relax the prohibition on assisted suicide. Ottawa is currently appealing a British Columbia ruling that opens the door to the legalization of medically assisted suicides.

Looking the other way while Quebec runs with the recommendations of its panel would be in contradiction with the marching orders issued to federal lawyers in the B.C. case.

It would also go against the grain of the social conservative wing of the government. It is already irritated by Harper’s refusal to revisit the abortion issue.

The will of Parliament — as expressed in a 2010 vote — is clear. In the last minority House of Commons, a private member’s bill to legalize assisted suicide was defeated 228 to 59.

Most of the bill’s backers — including some of Harper’s own ministers — were from Quebec, where the will of the National Assembly is even clearer.

In their support of prying open the door to medically assisted suicide, Quebec’s main parties are unanimous and the Parti Québécois government is only picking up where its Liberal predecessor left off.

If and when legislation is put forward, it will reflect a consensus that crosses partisan lines in Quebec.

At the very least, the Quebec developments increase the odds that the Supreme Court will revisit the assisted suicide issue sooner rather than later.

If all this sounds like a movie you have seen before, it is because the assisted-suicide debate is on a path that was already travelled over the course of the abortion and same-sex marriage sagas.

In both instances, Quebec adopted as liberal an approach as Canada’s legal framework would tolerate early on in the debate. In time, the rest of the country caught up to the province.

It is not so much that on such matters Quebec is systematically ahead of the curve as that Parliament has a well-documented tendency to lag behind public opinion.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer syndicated by the Toronto Star.

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