The Quebec government says it will proceed with so-called "dying with dignity" legislation aimed at allowing doctors to help some terminally ill patients end their lives.
A provincial panel of legal experts studying medically assisted end-of-life procedures released its recommendations Tuesday, suggesting Quebec could bypass the Canadian Criminal Code — which prohibits assisted suicide — and allow doctors to help some people who wish to die at a time of their own choosing.
The panel concludes that when a terminally ill patient is receiving palliative treatment and can demonstrate with lucidity the desire to end his or her life, helping that patient carry out that wish should be considered part of the continuum of care.
"Every person should be able to make their own choice according to their values and according to their experience, their life, at the end of their life," said Jean-Paul Ménard, who led the legal panel.
Ménard said the decision on whether to comply with a patient's request would be left to doctors to judge, on a case by case basis.
"The doctor will always be free ... in this kind of process," he said, adding that if a physician refused to help a terminally ill patient die, that patient would be free to seek help from another doctor.
Federal government backs status quo
The federal government has made it clear it is unwilling to change the law, announcing last summer that it would appeal a June ruling by British Columbia's Supreme Court, which partially struck down the ban on assisted suicide.
Judge Lynn Smith's ruling said the Criminal Code section that targets anyone who "aids or abets a person to commit suicide" should not apply to doctors honouring the wish of a terminally ill patient.
Gloria Taylor, the B.C. woman who brought the suit before the court, died in October, but the B.C. Civil Liberties Association is carrying on her legal fight.
Quebec will proceed on its own, minister says
Véronique Hivon, Quebec's social services minister, said the 400-page report by the Ménard committee concludes the province is on solid legal ground in proceeding with its legislation and does not need Ottawa's co-operation to move forward.
"The constitutional basis is clear," said Hivon. "We are really in a field of regulating end-of-life care — and adding the possibility for somebody to have access to medical aid in dying."
While still in opposition, Hivon served on a multi-party task force comprised of nine MNAs, who spent two years travelling around the province holding public hearings and studying end-of-life issues.
The task force's landmark Quebec report in 2012 recommended that doctors be allowed to help terminally ill patients die, in exceptional circumstances, if that is their wish.
'Scary precedent,' opponent says
Opponents fear changing the law could be the start of a slippery slope that would see some people killed without their explicit consent or people suffering from depression or other psychological pain helped to die, even though they are not terminally ill.
"There are scary precedents," said Georges Buscemi, the president of the Quebec Life Coalition, referring to the recent case of 45-year-old deaf twins in Belgium who chose to die by lethal injection on Dec. 14, after learning they were going blind.
"Give it a few years, and you'll have cases like these twins," said Buscemi. "The floodgates open."
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Euthanasia In Canada
Here's a look at the state of Euthanasia laws in Canada and their history.
Suicide Not A Crime
Suicide hasn't been a crime in Canada since 1972. (Shutterstock)
Doctor-Assisted Suicide Illegal
Doctor-assisted suicide is illegal, although the ruling of the B.C. Supreme Court will force Parliament to alter the law within one year.<br><br> The <a href="http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/page-113.html#h-79" target="_hplink">Criminal Code of Canada states in section 241</a> that:<br><br> "Every one who (a) counsels a person to commit suicide, or (b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years." (Alamy)
Passive euthanasia involves letting a patient die instead of prolonging life with medical measures. Passive euthanasia is legal in Canada.<br><br> The decision is left in the hands of family or a designated proxy. Written wishes, including those found in living wills, do not have to be followed by family or a proxy. (Alamy)
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodriguez_v._British_Columbia_(Attorney_General)" target="_hplink">Sue Rodriguez</a>, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), launched a case asking the Supreme Court of Canada to allow her to end her own life on the grounds that the current law discriminated against her disability.<br><br> Because suicide is legal in Canada and Rodriguez was unable to end her life because of a lack of mobility, she argued it was discriminatory to prevent her from ending her own life with the aid of another.<br><br> The court refused her request in 1993, but one year later she ended her life anyway with the help of an unnamed doctor. (CP)
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Latimer" target="_hplink">Robert Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1993 death of his severely disabled daughter Tracy</a>. A lack of oxygen during Tracy's birth led to cerebral palsy and serious mental and physical disabilities, including seizures and the inability to walk or talk. Her father ended Tracy's life by placing her in his truck and connecting a hose to the vehicle's exhaust.<br><br>The case led to a heated debate over euthanasia in Canada and two Supreme Court challenges. <br><br>Latimer was granted day parole in 2008 and full parole in 2010. (CP)
Bills To Legalize
Former Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde tried repeatedly to get legislation legalizing euthanasia in Canada passed. Bill C-407 and Bill C-384 were both aimed at making assisted suicide legal. C-384 was defeated in the House 228 to 59, with many Bloc MPs and a handful of members from all other parties voting for the legislation.<br><br> Tetraplegic Tory MP Steven Fletcher, pictured, made the following statement after C-384 was defeated: <br><br> "I would like to be recorded as abstaining on this bill. The reason is I believe end of life issues need to be debated more in our country. I believe that life should be the first choice but not the only choice and that we have to ensure that resources and supports are provided to Canadians so that choice is free. I believe, when all is said and done, the individual is ultimately responsible. I want to make this decision for myself, and if I cannot, I want my family to make the decision. I believe most Canadians, or many Canadians, feel the same. As William Henley said in his poem Invictus, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."<br><br>(CP)