OTTAWA — The federal government has introduced a long-awaited and controversial new law spelling out the conditions in which seriously ill or dying Canadians may seek medical help to end their lives.
The legislation says there should be a choice of medically assisted death "for adults who are suffering intolerably and for whom death is reasonably foreseeable."
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
That's more restrictive than what the top court said last year when it overturned the existing prohibition on doctor assisted suicide. The Supreme Court did not require person's condition to be terminal for them to request a doctor's help to end their lives.
The bill says those eligible would be mentally competent adults, 18 years or older, who voluntary request help with informed consent. They must have a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability and be in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability. The person must be on a course towards the end of life but while death would have to be foreseen, there would not have to be a specific prognosis or prospected time period before death.
To get a doctor's help, a written request would be required, either from the patient or a designated person if the patient was incapable, and the request would need to be signed by two independent witnesses. Two independent physicians or authorized nurse practitioners would have to evaluate it and there would be a mandatory 15-day waiting period unless death or loss of capacity to consent was imminent.
The legislation is the long-awaited response to the Supreme Court's ruling last year that the prohibition on doctor assisted suicide violates the right to life, liberty and security of the person.
The court gave the federal government until Feb. 6, 2016 — later extended to June 6 — to come up with a new law that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help to end their lives.
The government is going to appoint one or more independent bodies to study some outstanding issues not explicitly dealt with in the legislation, including whether it could cover mature minors, people who only suffer from mental illnesses and whether people could have advance directives that would grant them access to medically assisted death should a situation arise.
The federal government will also work with provinces to co-ordinated end of life care and connect patients with doctors or nurse practitioners willing to help them die.
The government confirmed late Wednesday that Liberal backbenchers will be free to vote according to their consciences on the legislation, the same as MPs from other parties. Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc had suggested some weeks ago that Liberal MPs would be required to support it.
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who was health minister in the previous government, said she's concerned there'll be little time for all MPs to debate the merits of the new bill and pass it in both houses of Parliament by June 6.
Legal experts and others also predict the new bill will inevitably be challenged, both by those who feel the law doesn't go far enough and those who feel it goes too far.
Consequently, some members of the special committee and some advocacy groups have called on the government to pre-emptively ask the Supreme Court whether the new law complies with the charter of rights — rather than forcing sick and dying individuals to launch their own court challenges.
Also on HuffPost:
A look at some jurisdictions where right-to-die laws are in place. (Information courtesy of The Canadian Press)
A right-to-die bill was adopted last year, the first legislation of its kind in Canada. The law, scheduled to go into effect in December, stipulates that patients would have to repeatedly ask a doctor to end their lives on the basis of unbearable physical or psychological suffering. They would have to be deemed mentally sound at the time of the requests. The law, however, is being challenged in court by two Quebec-based groups on the grounds that it undercuts sections of the Criminal Code that outlaw assisted suicide and euthanasia. The federal government has expressed its opposition to the legislation but is named as a defendant in the court challenge because it is responsible for the Criminal Code.
The results of a referendum made Oregon the first U.S. state to make it legal for a doctor to prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient of sound mind who makes the request. However, doctors cannot administer the life-ending drugs and the patient must swallow them without help. Patients must state three times -- once in writing -- that they wish to die, and those statements must be made at least 15 days apart. They must also obtain a concurring opinion from a second doctor that they have less than six months to live and are of sound mind. The law took effect in late 1997, and through June, 2014, just over 800 people had used the law.
The state became the first in the U.S. to allow a person's right to die through legislation rather than through a court decision or a referendum result. Vermont's law, which took effect in May 2013, is closely modelled on the system in Oregon and uses the same safeguards. Patients must state three times, including once in writing -- that they wish to die. They must also obtain a concurring opinion from a second doctor that they have less than six months to live and are of sound mind.
In January 2014, a judge ruled that competent, terminally ill patients have the right to seek their doctors' help in getting prescription medication if they want to end their lives on their own terms. The state's attorney general is appealing the ruling, and a decision on whether it will be upheld is expected later this year.
A referendum saw the state enact right to die legislation in 2008. As in Oregon, patients with less than six months to live must administer the doctor-prescribed lethal medication on their own. According to a government report, 549 people applied for the right to die between 2009 and 2013. Of those, 525 actually took their own lives.
In 2009, the state's Supreme Court ruled that Montana's public policy supports mentally competent, terminally ill patients being able to choose aid in dying. Physicians are allowed to prescribe medication that patients must administer themselves. More detailed legislative bills have been introduced in the state but have not passed. The court ruling still stands today, but data about its usage is not available.
A law passed in 1942 forbade anyone from helping someone kill themselves for selfish reasons. As a result, people arguing that they are assisting with a suicide for unselfish motives are not considered to be committing a crime. Suicides can be assisted by people other than doctors and no medical condition needs to be established. Switzerland is the only country that allows foreigners to travel there for the purpose of ending their own lives.
In the Netherlands, euthanasia is legal under specific circumstances and for children over the age of 12 with parental consent. In Europe, patients don't have to prove that they have a terminal illness -- establishing unbearable suffering is usually sufficient. Dutch doctors are allowed to perform euthanasia if a patient whose unbearable suffering has no hope of improvement asks to die with a full understanding of the situation. A second doctor must agree with the decision to help the patient die.