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Court Says It’s Legal for Quebec Doctors to Administer Lethal Medication

An Act Respecting End-of-Life Care was adopted by Quebec in 2014 and became law on December 10. But it has been met with opposition from a coalition of doctors, and a disabled woman who challenged it in court.
Image via Flickr Creative Commons

The Quebec government has conquered the latest obstacle to its right-to-die legislation, as the province's highest court ruled on Tuesday that it doesn't conflict with Canada's Criminal Code.

An Act Respecting End-of-Life Care, which was adopted by Quebec's government in 2014 and became law on December 10, outlines how medically assisted death would work in the province: with doctors administering lethal injections to consenting patients who are suffering from a terminal illness and who have requested the aid. It's a practice known as euthanasia, although Quebec describes it as "medical aid in dying" and stipulates that doctors confer with a second physician before proceeding. Assisted suicide is when a doctor provides the patient with lethal medication that the patient will administer him or herself.

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But on December 1, just over a week before the law came into effect, Quebec's Superior Court ruled in favor of the Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice and Lisa D'Amico, a woman with a disability, who sought an injunction on the basis that it's impossible for terminally ill patients to have free and informed consent, and claiming that palliative care options in the province are inadequate. They also argued that euthanasia is not a form of medical care.

Judge Michel Pinnosault did not grant that injunction but ruled that the law couldn't take effect until amendments were made to Canada's Criminal Code to reflect the Supreme Court of Canada's earlier decision to reverse a ban on assisted suicide.

He wrote that Quebec's law violated two sections of the Criminal Code, including one that says "no person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him" and another that forbids anyone from counseling, aiding or abetting someone to commit suicide.

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

Related: Court Blocks Quebec's Assisted Suicide Law

But on Tuesday, Quebec's Court of Appeal said Pinsonnault's judgment was based on an "erroneous premise" that federal law should trump provincial law because, in this case, the Supreme Court has already ruled that Criminal Code provisions in question are "constitutionally invalid."

Advocacy group Dying with Dignity CEO Wanda Morris applauded the decision.

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"This is a truly remarkable day that clears the path forward for Quebec residents to openly request compassionate assistance to die," she said. "There is no longer any legal ambiguity. Health care providers in the province should feel comforted knowing that their government and their top court support this critical health care treatment."

Last February, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the ban on physician-assisted death, giving the federal government a year to craft a new law. The Liberal government recently asked for a six-month extension to that deadline and that request will be heard by the Supreme Court on January 11.

But Quebec has already passed its own law, refusing the justice minister's request to wait until federal legislation is drafted, arguing that medically-assisted suicide is an extension of end-of- life care, making it a health issue and a provincial responsibility.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk 

Image via Flickr Creative Commons user Jonas Boni