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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer Regional Airport CEO Graham Ingham has ambitious plans for the airport. (Advocate file photo).
Red Deer Regional Airport revenues climb in 2020

Bringing in more business is the 2021 goal, says director

City council will have to wait longer to hear back from administration on possible alternative sites — if the homeless shelter is moved from Red Deer downtown. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Alternative sites for homeless shelter will be explored by the City of Red Deer

Council gave administration more time to return with a report

Quentin Lee Strawberry was found not guilty of second-degree murder in connection with stabbing death of Joseph Gallant in March 2019. (Photo from RCMP)
Updated: O’Chiese man found not guilty of 2019 stabbing death of Red Deer man

Quentin Strawberry found guilty of assaulting murdered man’s common-law partner

(Advocate file photo).
City of Red Deer property tax bills are in the mail

Red Deer 2021 tax notices are on their way. Red Deer property… Continue reading

Vancouver Canucks’ Nils Hoglander (36) scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Laurent Brossoit (30) during first-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Monday May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Hoglander scores twice as Vancouver Canucks dump slumping Winnipeg Jets 3-1

Hoglander scores twice as Vancouver Canucks dump slumping Winnipeg Jets 3-1

Edmonton Oilers' Dominik Kahun (21) celebrates with teammate Connor McDavid (97) after scoring the third goal against Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen (34) during second-period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canadiens clinch playoff spot with single point, fall to McDavid and Oilers in OT

Canadiens clinch playoff spot with single point, fall to McDavid and Oilers in OT

Rory McIlroy tees off on the fourth hole during the fourth round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at Quail Hollow on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
McIlroy ends 18 months without winning at Quail Hollow

McIlroy ends 18 months without winning at Quail Hollow

Canada , left to right, lead Briane Meilleur, third Val Sweeting, skip Kerri Einarson, and second Shannon Birchard discuss strategy against Sweden in a qualification game at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 8, 2021. Both of Canada's teams were shut out of the medals, marking the first time ever that Canada did not reach the podium at either the men's or women's worlds in the same season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Bubble Wrap: Fresh questions for Canada after medal shutout at curling worlds

Bubble Wrap: Fresh questions for Canada after medal shutout at curling worlds

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Oilers plan to keep playing McDavid, Draisaitl as NHL regular season winds down

Oilers plan to keep playing McDavid, Draisaitl as NHL regular season winds down

Canada's Tyler Ardron, right, tries to block the kick by Italy's Callum Braley during the Rugby World Cup Pool B match in Fukuoka, western Japan, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kyodo News via AP
Canadian men to face Wales and England in July rugby test matches

Canadian men to face Wales and England in July rugby test matches

John Velazquez, right, rides Medina Spirit ahead of Florent Geroux aboard Mandaloun to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Darron Cummings
Casse believes colleague Baffert deserves “due process” folowing positive test

Casse believes colleague Baffert deserves “due process” folowing positive test

Canada forward Liam Millar (23) moves the ball past Bermuda defender Eusebio Blankendal (2) during the second half of a World Cup 2022 Group B qualifying soccer match Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-John Raoux
Canadian men to play next two World Cup qualifying matches in the U.S.

Canadian men to play next two World Cup qualifying matches in the U.S.

Most Read