Tuesday December 08,



Written by Alan Hustak for VMO
Wednesday November 4th,

On December 10, Quebec will become the first Canadian province to permit doctors to euthanize patients as Bill 52 comes into effect. Still to be resolved, however, is the question of whether Quebec’s law conforms to provisions under the criminal Code of Canada which makes it illegal “to help a person commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not.” 

 Last February, in its far-reaching Carter v. Canada decision the Supreme Court ruled that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms Canadians does give Canadians the right take their own lives, but that as it now stands it is still illegal “to help a person commit suicide, whether a suicide ensues or not.” 

The High Court has given the government until February 6, to amend two sections of the criminal code to comply with its ruling. Until it does, many argue that Quebec will be acting in defiance of the existing criminal code. Quebec has decided to go it alone on the grounds that it has jurisdiction over health care, and that physician hastened death, or assisted suicide, is health care. But until there is a clear resolution it appears that doctors in Quebec who help terminate a patient’s life can still be prosecuted under the criminal code. 

 The previous Harper government appointed a three member panel headed by Manitoba psychiatrist Harvey Max Chochinov, to consider legislative options for implementing Carter v. Canada. Hearings were suspended during the election campaign. The new Liberal government, which will be sworn in this week, has asked the Supreme Court for a six months extension.

Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, says it is impossible for the government to draw up enabling legislation on such short notice. “It’s not possible. We know it is not possible,” he said during a seminar on assisted suicide in Montreal last week. “If there hadn’t been an election, it might have been possible. Our concern is what the new law will actually say. While the court opens the way for assisted suicide, it provides no tools for Parliament to prevent error or to protect vulnerable people from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness. What becomes of this it is hard to know if you can’t define it.” 

Dr. Will Johnson, the chair of the Coalitions’s branch in British Columbia agrees. “Given the short time, if they are going to do it in a rush, the incoming Liberal government would be wise to listen to the recommendations of the external federal panel and should pay no attention to the provincial panels which have been set up by radical suicide proponents. It is unrealistic to have a law in place by February, especially since Parliament is left with responsibility to come up with the required rigor and strength which will guard against abuse that is lacking in the high court judgement” 

This past weekend, more than 150 people from across Canada attended a one day seminar in Montreal organized by the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition. In one keynote speech, Vancouver’s Dr. Margaret Cottle said she wants government do “do the right thing, not the cheap thing.” Dr. Cottle said people should be made aware of the difference between palliative care and assisted suicide. “Palliative sedation does not hasten death, some patients just want to check out and kick the reboot button for a while, it does not mean they want to be dead. I am sure that when it comes right down to it, doctors will not be willing to kill their patients. If patients were to receive high quality palliative care, requests for physician hastened death would be reduced.”

The conference was told that the results of a recent poll in Quebec show that 60 per cent of the doctors in that province are opposed to assisted suicide; nationally the figure is as high as 73 per cent. During the seminar the council Dr. Balfour Mount, who is considered the father of palliative care in Canada, was named the first recipient of the council’s award that will be presented in his honour. As pictures above, Catherine Ferrier accepted the award from Alex Schadenberg. Dr. Balfour Mount is ill and was unable to attend.


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