Quebec doctors say it's time for the federal and provincial governments to decriminalize euthanasia.

Gaetan Barrette, head of the province's association of medical specialists, said Monday at a national assembly committee hearing on the right to die with dignity that the province and Ottawa should come up with clear policies on when doctors can facilitate a patient's death.

He said that, like it or not, euthanasia is already widely practised, and governments should stop ignoring it. He said the public is ready to accept guidelines on hastening death for incurably ill people.

Barrette suggested Quebec could move to protect doctors who practise euthanasia from prosecution, as it did in the past with doctors carrying out abortions.

Barrette was among about 30 experts, including doctors and patient advocates, scheduled to address the assembly's standing committee on health and social services on the issues of euthanasia and the right to die. The hearings continue Tuesday.

Quebec's Liberal government  announced in early December that it would hold public consultations on the question of euthanasia. The move followed a request from the opposition Parti Québécois.

The hearings will be used to prepare a consultation document clarifying the issues surrounding euthanasia. This report will then be used during public consultations to determine how Quebecers feel about the subject.

Brian Mishara, a spokesman for the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia at the University of Quebec in Montreal,  said there is a lot of confusion around the rules and laws governing euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The committee's report should help to ensure that health care professionals have a common understanding of what to do in such cases, Mishara said.

While the Quebec government cannot authorize euthanasia on its own, the hearing process will be used to see if there is consensus about the practice of it in the province.

With files from The Canadian Press