New Brunswick

N.B. doctors urge swift passing of assisted dying bill

The New Brunswick Medical Society is urging the Senate to swiftly pass physician-assisted suicide legislation or about 10 patients may not get the help they want from their doctors in the next year.

Dr. John Whalen estimates 5 to 10 New Brunswickers could opt for physician-assisted dying once law passes

Dr. John Whelan, the new president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said he hopes the Senate quickly passes the assisted dying bill. (NB Medical Society)

The New Brunswick Medical Society is urging the Senate to swiftly pass legislation to allow physician-assisted death or about 10 patients may not get the help they want from their doctors in the next year.

"The clock is ticking," said Dr. John Whelan, the president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, which is calling on the Senate to pass Bill C-14 by June 6.

The medically assisted dying bill, which passed in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, was drafted in response to a Supreme Court decision in 2015.

The country's top court ruled that a ban on doctor-assisted death was a violation of a patient's rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Instead of suspending the law immediately, the federal government was given until February 2016 to pass new legislation and that deadline was later extended to June 6. 

The New Brunswick Medical Society would like the legislation to be passed and concrete protocols from the New Brunswick government be established.

The medically assisted dying bill, which passed in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, was drafted in response to a Supreme Court decision in 2015. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)
"What happens Monday if the Senate doesn't pass [new laws], the problem is there is no process that exists now to follow," said Whelan. 

"So we believe that most physicians would not go forward to do anything as of Monday." 

CBC News attempted to speak with New Brunswick senators John Wallace and Joseph Day about the bill.

Both were expected to be present for a committee session where senators began their consideration of Bill C-14 on Wednesday afternoon by questioning Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Health Minister Jane Philpott.

Unless that process moves quickly, New Brunswick doctors say they will have only the Supreme Court's decision to guide them. 

It says the law should not prohibit  physician-assisted death for a competent adult who clearly consents to the termination of his life and has a  "grievous and irremediable medical condition, including an illness, disease or disability, that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable."

Whelan says that's still not clear enough. 

"[It] does not really define several issues, such as patient eligibility criteria, the process requirements to request medical assistance in dying, as well as the monitoring and reporting of those requirements." said Whelan.

Draft guidelines

The New Brunswick College of Physicians and Surgeons did draft guidelines months ago, when it was expected that the law would be invalidated in February. 

Ed Schollenberg, the college's registrar, said those guidelines were never meant to overtake federal legislation. 

"And nobody is going to do this until the Criminal Code is amended," said Schollenberg. 

The Nurses Association of New Brunswick has advised its members they can neither participate in assisted death nor counsel patients on assisted death in the absence of Criminal Code amendments.  

New Brunswick has yet to issue a written framework.

Health Minister Jane Philpott answers senators' questions on the government's assisted dying legislation in a rare televised session in the Senate chamber on Wednesday. (CPAC/CBC )
Bruce Macfarlane, director of communications with the Department of Health, said a working group made up of representatives from the Department of Health and both regional health authorities have been working on a policy for several months.

The department spokesman said the health minister will issue a written directive to both regional health authorities once the federal legislation comes into force.

"The directive will establish safeguards for vulnerable patients and protect the conscience rights for health care professionals and other employees," he said.

"Finally, it will reiterate key provisions of Bill C-14 and provide guidance to health care professionals in delivering medical assistance In dying."

Quebec implemented its own legislation last year.

In that province, there are written guidelines around how consent is obtained, and details as to how to handle medications used to induce coma and cardiac arrest. 

CBC News asked Whelan if he had a sense of how many patients in New Brunswick would seek assistance in ending their lives.

He said he came up with an estimate based on what's been happening in Oregon, which has had end-of-life laws since 1997.

"If you look at the Oregon experience and you extrapolate their population to our population, the demand in New Brunswick would probably five to 10 per year," said Whelan.

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