12/22/2015 10:05 EST

Quebec Assisted-Dying Law Upheld By Province's Top Court

Closeup shot of an elderly man holding his wife's hand while she is ill in the hospital

MONTREAL— The doctor at the heart of the fight against Quebec's assisted-dying law promised Tuesday he will not back down despite the province's top court ruling that the legislation is constitutional and can remain in effect.

The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned a lower court decision aimed at suspending implementation of the law.

Criminal Code provisions banning assisted suicide are invalid because they were struck down by the Supreme Court, the appeals court ruled Tuesday.

That means Quebec's law doesn't conflict with the federal statutes, which take precedence in the country's legal system.

A Quebec Superior Court justice ruled last month the law contravened Sec. 14 of the Criminal Code, which states people cannot consent to having death inflicted on them.

Quebec appealed that decision.

"Is euthanasia a medical care? Our argument is no."

The Supreme Court ruled the federal law banning assisted suicide unconstitutional last February, but suspended its decision for one year to give the government time to create a new law.

"There is no doubt'' the articles of the Criminal Code regarding assisted suicide "are constitutionally invalid," the appeals court said in its ruling.

That makes exemptions to those Criminal Code provisions possible under certain circumstances and means the Quebec law is constitutional, the court added.

The Superior Court justice ruled in favour of Dr. Paul Saba and a handicapped woman, who were hoping to postpone implementation of the law until at least February.

Saba said he was disappointed by Tuesday's ruling but promised to take Quebec to court once again.

"We're saying people in Quebec don't have access to quality (palliative) care so they don't have a real alternative (to assisted suicide)."

The appeals court said Saba and his Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice are free to contest Quebec's law on the other arguments in their initial lawsuit.

Saba intends to challenge it on the basis he believes doctor-assisted suicide is not a medical service and, therefore, does not fall under provincial jurisdiction.

He will also argue that terminally ill patients in Quebec have neither proper access to palliative care nor a real choice when offered medical assistance in dying.

"We're going back to Superior Court," Saba told The Canadian Press. "Is euthanasia a medical care? Our argument is no. Secondly, we're saying people in Quebec don't have access to quality (palliative) care so they don't have a real alternative (to assisted suicide)."

The appeals court said Canada's diverse federal system ensures provinces have the autonomy to "develop their societies within their proper spheres of influence."

"We never had any doubt as to the validity of the Quebec law."

Quebec has long argued that permitting doctor-assisted suicide is a medical service and is of provincial jurisdiction.

The law outlines how terminally ill patients can end their lives with medical help and was adopted by members of the national assembly in June 2014. It officially became law Dec. 10.

Patients who request doctor-assisted dying must fulfil certain requirements such as ``being at the end of life and suffer from a serious and incurable illness,'' according to the law.

Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee said she was satisfied with Tuesday's ruling, adding "we never had any doubt as to the validity of the Quebec law."

"The ruling confirms the Quebec government legislated within its sphere of competency," she said in an interview.

While the Supreme Court last February gave Ottawa a year to craft a new law, the Liberal government is seeking a six-month extension on the deadline which, if granted, would give it until August to come up with new euthanasia legislation that is constitutional.

The high court will hold an oral hearing on Jan. 11 as it considers whether to green-light Ottawa's request for the extension.

Christian Girouard, spokesman for federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, said Tuesday the government's interest is in a "uniform criminal law for all Canadians and Parliament is currently engaged in considering that law."

"We recognize the leadership that Quebec has demonstrated in developing its own legislation on physician-assisted dying," he said in an email. "We will continue to work with Quebec, as well as the other provinces and territories, to develop a co-ordinated approach to physician-assisted dying across the country."

In its decision, the appeals court said Quebec's assisted-dying law fills a judicial void by allowing patients to exercise their fundamental rights.

The Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting terminally ill and suffering people from having access to doctor-assisted suicide deprives them of their fundamental right to life, liberty and security of the person.