The federal government has asked the Supreme Court for a six-month extension to draft new laws on doctor-assisted dying.

In a 73-page document filed with the high court Thursday, lawyers for the Attorney General of Canada plead for more time to respond to last year's ruling on the "complex" issue.

"A comprehensive response to the court's judgment raises important and complex issues which require extensive work by Parliament and provincial legislatures, and can not reasonably be completed before Feb. 6, 2016," it reads.

The high court justices will take time to consider responses from parties involved in the 'Carter' legal case before rendering a decision on whether to grant the extension.

In February, the Supreme Court ruled that Canadians with unbearable suffering should be allowed to end their lives with the aid of a physician, and it gave Parliament one year to enact new laws.

An affidavit from Justice Department lawyer Carole Morency filed with the extension request said the government began a detailed analysis in the "immediate aftermath" of the Supreme Court's decision

Societal, individual interests at stake

"This analysis highlighted the complexity of responding to the court's decision in a manner than appropriately balances the many societal and individual interests at stake regarding physician-assisted dying, as well as the interplay between the federal responsibility for criminal law and provincial-territorial responsibility for the delivery of health care," it reads.

Morency also warns that if the Criminal Code prohibitions are invalid, then all consensual killings and assisted suicides would no longer be criminal offences, not just physician-assisted deaths.

"Both of those situations pose serious risks to public safety," her affidavit reads.

The federal government's file to the Supreme Court includes several letters supporting an extension, including correspondence from provincial justice ministers in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba.

Wanda Morris, the chief executive officer of Dying With Dignity, was bitterly disappointed by the government's decision to seek an extension and said it would lead to prolonged suffering for hundreds of Canadians.

"We are really gutted for those people who are even now waiting for assistance to die and have had that taken away from them," she said. 

Morris said there are sufficient provincial health laws and professional codes for physicians that would act as safeguards in the interim while federal legislation is enacted. 

A release from Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould's office said while it is true that an extension of the suspension will mean that some Canadians will have to wait to access physician-assisted dying, it is necessary and responsible to ensure protections are in place across the country.

Need to protect the vulnerable

"The federal government's response will affect all of society," said a statement from Wilson-Raybould. "That is why we are firmly committed to including Canadians and taking the time to develop a thoughtful, sensitive and well-informed response. We recognize both a person's right to make fundamental decisions about his or her life and the need to protect those who are vulnerable.

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Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould says doctor-assisted dying legislation must respect individual rights while protecting the vulnerable. (CP/Fred Chartrand)

The government's formal request comes two days after Quebec Superior Court Judge Michel Pinsonnault ruled that Quebec's law allowing some terminally ill patients to end their lives with medical assistance contradicts Criminal Code provisions that remain in place until Feb. 6, 2016.

The Quebec government announced it would appeal the Superior Court decision. The province's end-of-life law was set to take effect Dec. 10.

"Physician-assisted dying is a complex and deeply personal issue for Canadians of all ages and backgrounds. The federal government's response will affect all of society. That is why we are firmly committed to including Canadians and taking the time to develop a thoughtful, sensitive, and well-informed response. We recognize both a person's right to make fundamental decisions about his or her life and the need to protect those who are vulnerable."

Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc has said drafting new laws will be a top priority for the government and that a committee of MPs and senators will be struck to craft "quick and expedited" legislation to fill the void.