MONTREAL — Quebecers are increasingly asking about having the province's doctor-assisted suicide law expanded, the woman behind the legislation said Thursday.
Veronique Hivon of the Parti Quebecois said "a lot of people" approach her about modifying the law to allow family members with degenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's access to the procedure.
Hivon was reacting to the Health Department's latest numbers released Thursday that reveal Quebec doctors assisted 638 people in dying between June 10, 2016, and June 9, 2017.
The number is a significant increase compared with the 167 people who received a doctor-assisted death in the first six months after the law went into effect in December 2015.
"According to the evidence, the numbers confirm that the law is responding to a need of people at the end of their life, who are suffering and who want access to this option," Hivon said in an interview.
"There is a very clear desire within the population to debate expanding the legislation. We need this debate to happen."
Hivon said the ongoing high-profile court case of Michel Cadotte, a man charged with second-degree murder after his wife was found dead in a long-term facility, helped bring the issue to many people's attention.
Cadotte's wife was reportedly suffering badly from Alzheimer's and had seen her request for a doctor-assisted death denied.
Hivon said only Alzheimer's patients who are at the end of their life can receive a doctor-assisted death.
By the time that happens, however, people suffering from Alzheimer's are often not able to give informed consent, which is another necessary criterion to receive the procedure.
Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette said in a statement the government is putting together a committee of experts to look into the "complex question" of expanding the law to have it apply to people who are deemed "legally and clinically unfit" to give consent to the procedure.
Hivon tabled right-to-die legislation in June 2013 when her party was in government but the bill died when the PQ was toppled by the Liberals in 2014.
A similar bill was tabled by Barrette, with Hivon as co-sponsor. When it became law, it became the first of its kind in the country.
In June 2016, Canada passed its own law limiting the right to assisted dying to those whose natural death is reasonably foreseeable.
Ottawa released statistics in early October revealing that 1,179 Canadians were given a doctor-assisted death between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2017, a 47 per cent increase over the first six months the law was in effect.
In Quebec, between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017, there were 31 cases where a patient received the procedure under circumstances that didn't respect the law.
One of those patients was judged to have not been sick with a serious and incurable illness.
Yves Robert, secretary of Quebec's college of physicians, the body that reviews all assisted-dying files judged to have been conducted in some way outside the law, said most of those cases were only "administrative errors."
"There was no case that justified a punitive intervention by the college," he said.
Dr. Paul Saba, whose organization had challenged Quebec's legislation in court, noted that out of the 377 cases in the 2016-17 counting period that were denied, 79 people had changed their minds about wanting to die.
"That means that given the right conditions, people might change," said Saba, who advocates for better palliative care for dying patients as opposed to assisted death.
"Maybe there is better pain control, maybe they had a better understanding of their illness, love and attention ...Given enough time many people change their mind.
"True aid is giving people the right palliative care."