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Court Blocks Quebec's Assisted Suicide Law

Today, a judge ruled in favor of the Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice and a woman with a disability who had contested the law in court. It was days away from taking effect.
Wanda Morris of Dying with Dignity. Photo by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Quebec's Superior Court has put the brakes on the province's attempt to legalize medically-assisted death, mere days before the law's enactment.

In early November, Paul Saba of the Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice and Lisa D'Amico, a woman with a disability, contested the law in court. They argued that physician-assisted suicide, as per the Quebec bill, was akin to euthanasia and that doctors who provided the service could face criminal charges.

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The group claimed the Quebec law was overstepping its boundaries, since euthanasia falls under the Criminal Code and is thus regulated at the federal level. The key difference between euthanasia and medically-assisted death is who administers the treatment. While the latter consists of providing a patient with the tools to end their own life, the former, where the physician administers the fatal medication, is illegal.

This morning, Judge Michel Pinsonnault ruled in favor of Saba and D'Amico, stymieing the law's implementation.

"It must be concluded that this is a flagrant and direct incompatibility," Pinsonnault wrote in French.

Related: Assisted Suicide Is About to Be Legal in Quebec — And Some Pharmacists Are Still in the Dark

Quebec's roll-out of its right-to-die legislation had been under national scrutiny. Last February, Canada's Supreme Court overturned the ban on physician-assisted death, allowing doctors across the country to legally offer the service as early as February 2016. The Quebec government, which adopted its own bill last summer, was ahead of the curve, providing an example right-to-die groups had been watching closely.

Dying With Dignity CEO Wanda Morris said her group was "devastated" by today's ruling. "We fear this injunction will effectively rob terminally ill Quebecers — those patients in the last throes of their illnesses — of their rightful access to a peaceful death," she wrote in a press release.

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Last week, the new Liberal government asked Quebec to delay the implementation of its law and wait for the rest of the country to catch up, a request the provincial government had refused.

Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée says the province intends to appeal Tuesday's court ruling.

"There's a clear difference between euthanasia and medical aid in dying," Vallée told reporters at the National Assembly. "It's clear to us that the Quebec law is valid. [It] clearly frames the end-of-life cares offered to Quebec patients, including medically-assisted death."

The law has been the subject of much controversy since it was first approved in June 2014. In September, Quebec's palliative care centres rallied against hosting the service, which they said went against the spirit of their care. And earlier this month, VICE News reported that private pharmacists, one of the service's key players, were still largely in the dark about their role.

A spokesperson for the Collège des médecins du Québec, one of the groups behind the service's implementation, says that while they would not be commenting on the decision, their team had been ready for the December 10 start date. "The law required us to produce three exercise manuals, and Dr. Robert [the Collège's secretary] was giving on-demand workshops to groups of doctors," said Leslie Labranche.

Paul Saba did not return a VICE News request for an interview before publication.

Follow Brigitte Noel on Twitter: @Brige_Noel