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Justin Trudeau Is Going to Have to Do Something About Assisted Suicide Soon

Doctor-assisted suicide is legal in Quebec next month, and in the rest of Canada in February, unless Trudeau asks for a delay. Doctors are already challenging the Quebec law in court.

by Rachel Browne
Nov 6 2015, 8:20pm

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Tensions are running high in Quebec as a palliative care clinic is set to become the first place in the country to help patients end their own lives, after legislation that makes assisted death legal in the province comes into effect next month.

Though the private clinic in Sherbrooke will provide the service only for cancer patients for now, advocates for the right to die are thrilled about it and say it's a good sign that attitudes toward assisted suicide in Canada have shifted. But a group of doctors launched a lawsuit this week to overturn the law, arguing, in part, that helping someone die shouldn't be considered a health service.

"As a doctor, I can't accept something that is non-medical, non scientific," Paul Saba, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice, told the Canadian Press this week.

These clashes signal what could happen when a unanimous decision from Canada's Supreme Court from earlier this year that struck down the criminal code's ban on assisted suicide is set to take over. The court gave the federal government, then ruled by the Conservatives, until February 2016 to craft a new law. If it didn't, then its decision that allows doctors to help "competent" adults suffering from "grievous and irremediable" medical conditions end their lives.

Before that, someone who helped another person commit suicide faced a criminal sentence of up to 14 years in prison.

With that deadline looming, Canada's new prime minister Justin Trudeau is facing mounting pressure from groups for and against the right to die who demand he take immediate action.

Trudeau has repeatedly said the Supreme Court made the right call and the Liberals have suggested they will ask the Supreme Court to extend its deadline for at least six months in order to propose a replacement law. In the meantime, other provinces, besides Quebec, are waiting for Trudeau to make a move on the topic.

On Wednesday, when the Liberals officially took office, Dying with Dignity, a group that advocates for choice at the end of life, hosted a day of action across Canada calling on the new government not to ask for an extension, but also to move quickly over concerns about the Supreme Court's decision.

"For the past nine months, we have not seen a coordinated response to the Supreme Court's resounding decision on assisted dying," the group's CEO Wanda Morris said in a statement. "It's unacceptable to force desperately ill Canadians to wait longer to realize their right to die…"

Morris added in another statement that because of the "lack of leadership from Ottawa and the other provinces" she and her group are worried that "patients will be denied their hard-won right to die with dignity when the Supreme Court's decision comes into effect."

Related: An Election Has Put the Brakes on Doctor Assisted Suicide Consultations in Canada 

Religious groups are hoping he moves quickly too, but in the opposite direction.

On Thursday, Catholic, Jewish, evangelical, and Muslim leaders released a joint "declaration" demanding that anything that allows a person to end a life is "morally and ethically wrong."

For them, governments should focus on bolstering palliative care and tightening the reins on assisted dying, fearing a slippery slope.

"The biggest fear is that we'll have the same situation as we have in the abortion situation," the Catholic Archbishop of Ottawa said this week. "We'd have teenagers deciding they don't want to live and they'd ask doctors to put them away," he added, even though the court has imposed restrictions on who may end their life with a doctor's help.

But the director of the clinic in Sherbrooke insists that under the right guidelines, helping someone suffering end their own life can be a valid extension of palliative care. "When you alleviate someone's suffering, they don't want to die, they want to live for whatever time they have left," Marie Bercotte told Postmedia.

"Our mission is to accompany a person at the end of their life, while respecting their choices, so they have the easiest end possible."

A three-person panel who was appointed by the Conservatives before the election to advise the government on any new assisted death legislation is continuing its work across the country.

It's unclear what the Liberals will do with the group's findings. Trudeau said before the election he looks forward to seeing "what results those consultations have brought forward."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne