QUEBEC - The Quebec government says it believes it has found a way of not running afoul of Ottawa after a legal panel recommended that a terminally ill patient has the right to die.
Provincial junior health minister Veronique Hivon said Tuesday the panel determined that provinces have the legal jurisdiction to legislate in matters of health and that the future Quebec legislation would clarify how acts to end a life wouldn't be considered suicide.
The report states "the Quebec legislature has the constitutional power to organize the required legal framework for end-of-life care within the health-care system."
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in Canada under the Criminal Code. Julie Di Mambro, a spokeswoman for federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, said Tuesday the government's position remains the same.
"This is a painful and divisive issue that has been thoroughly debated in Parliament," she said. "We respect Parliament’s decision."
Hivon said the Quebec government can now pass a law with strict guidelines that will respect the wishes of the dying to shorten their suffering and provide doctors with a clear legal framework.
Under the recommendations, patients themselves would have to make the request to a doctor on the basis of unbearable physical or psychological suffering. Two physicians would have to approve the request, which would have to be made in writing.
Doctors would not face criminal charges in these circumstances, the report said. Any law should state that the refusal, interruption, abstention from care or the application of a terminal sedative in those circumstances could not be considered a suicide.
The Quebec panel, which was headed by lawyer Jean-Pierre Menard, said people suffering from an incurable or degenerative illness should be allowed to ask for medical assistance to help them die.
However, the panel added the final decision should be left up to doctors.
"We want to affirm a person's right to make a choice," Menard said.
"Besides that, we try to establish or to confirm or reinforce a lot of regulation for vulnerable people to avoid any situation in which a vulnerable person may be subject to a treatment that is not required," Menard said.
The recommendations follow a landmark report in Quebec from last March that suggested doctors be allowed in exceptional circumstances to help the terminally ill die if that is what the patients want.
It's a debate that Canadians have grappled with for nearly two decades.
In 1992, assisted suicide hit the national radar when Sue Rodriguez, a B.C. woman, fought all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada for the right to kill herself. Rodriguez, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, lost 5-4 in a split decision. She killed herself in 1994 with the help of an unidentified physician.
Hivon said implementation of any new law would be accompanied by a bolstering of Quebec's palliative-care system, which she said she believes is one way to avoid increased requests to use the right-to-die law.
She said a lack of palliative care is one reason many people ask to have their lives shortened.
"For the vast majority of people who are suffering, palliative care remains the best answer," she said.
The Quebec association of retired and semi-retired people has asked the government to open 200 new palliative-care beds.
"What the commission has shown is the urgent need to develop palliative care throughout the province," said association spokesman Mathieu Santerre.
(With a file by Nelson Wyatt in Montreal)