Montreal

Supreme Court's assisted-death reversal welcomed by Quebec government

The Supreme Court's unanimous decision to reverse Canada's ban on medically assisted death was inspired by Quebec's leadership on the matter, says Parti Québécois MNA Véronique Hivon.

MNA Véronique Hivon says Supreme Court decision directly inspired by province's leadership

PQ MNA Hivon helped usher in Quebec's law on physician-assisted suicide. She said she was proud of Quebec's role and leadership in changing the law for all Canadians. 0:33

The Supreme Court's unanimous decision to reverse Canada's ban on medically assisted death was inspired by Quebec's leadership on the matter, says Parti Québécois MNA Véronique Hivon.

"You understand if I’m particularly touched and proud today. It's because the decision the Supreme Court made this morning was directly inspired by the work, the debate and the law Quebec did toward end-of-life care," Hivon said on Friday after the ruling was handed down. 

It is a very important day, first of all for people who are suffering, people who are sick, people who are at the end of their lives.- MNA Véronique Hivon

She said the Supreme Court cited elements of Quebec's law in the criteria it used to overturn the previous ban on assisted suicide.

Quebec was the first province in Canada to allow its citizens to seek medical assistance in dying. It passed its Act respecting end-of-life care on June 5, 2014 in a 94-22 vote with no abstentions.

A dying with dignity committee was convened under former premier Jean Charest in 2009. The committee heard testimony from many Quebecers on either side of the debate in a process Hivon called "deeply democratic."

The committee tabled its final report in March 2012.

Hivon worked on the dossier for years in collaboration with all other provincial parties, and was the one to introduce the bill at the National Assembly last year.  

"It is a very important day, first of all for people who are suffering, people who are sick, people who are at the end of their lives," Hivon said Friday.

She thanked the people who shared their stories with Quebec's dying with dignity committee.

"Some people really went outside of their shell and their comfort to tell us very personal stories about their mother, about their husband, about their child. They felt that this debate was so important, that what they had gone through was so difficult, that they didn't want other families and other people to go through that," Hivon said.

No right to die, group says

Hivon ​said that the Supreme Court decision means that there is no longer a Sword of Damocles hanging over Quebec's law.

Catherine Ferrier says the right to life does not necessarily entail a right to die. (CBC)

Quebec's non-partisan bill spells out the conditions in which a terminally ill patient could receive medical assistance in dying.

However, some Quebecers are not as pleased with the Supreme Court decision as the provincial government.

"We're of course very disappointed that the Supreme Court thinks that a right to life involves a right to die, that they think the solution at the end of life is to have your doctor inflict death, have your doctor kill you," said Catherine Ferrier, a geriatrics doctor and the president of the Physicians' Alliance Against Euthanasia.

She said there were other solutions at the end of life that didn't involve suicide or assisted suicide.

Grey zone in Quebec

An argument often heard during the Quebec debate was that elderly people and people with terminal illnesses would be pressured by family members or even medical staff to opt to die.

There have been repeated calls for a greater investment of money and resources into palliative care in Quebec throughout the debate on physician-assisted death, and Dr. Paul Saba has been an outspoken opponent of the province's law.

"Will patients battling cancer want to be treated by physicians who practice euthanasia and are possibly more concerned about health care costs rather than the value of human life?" wrote a news release from Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice.

McGill law professor Robert Leckey said a grey zone now exists in Quebec. Previously, doctors could not apply the province's law because it was prohibited by the Criminal Code.

Now the federal government has up to a year to amend the Criminal Code to reflect the Supreme Court's new decision, so it is not quite legal yet.

Whether or not doctors would be prosecuted if they assisted in helping a patient commit suicide before the Criminal Code is modified remains unclear.

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