Quebec court blocks province’s assisted suicide law

A coalition of doctors challenged Quebec’s plan to pass right-to-die legislation.
A coalition of doctors challenged Quebec’s plan to pass right-to-die legislation. Photo: iStock.

Right-to-die legislation has always been controversial. Opposing groups have butted heads over morality, ethics, and religious grounds on the issue for decades.

The Supreme Court of Canada spoke to the issue in February of 2015, when it ruled to strike down the prohibition against doctor-assisted suicide in the case Carter. v. Canada.

The Supreme Court explained that forbidding people from seeking medical assistance in ending their life, when they are suffering unbearable physical and/or mental pain due to illnesses, went against the principles of fundamental justice.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court gave the federal government one year – until February 2016 -– to come up with new legislation that respected a person’s wish to end their life if they have an intolerably painful and debilitating illness.

However, the province of Quebec didn’t want to wait on the federal government’s new legislation. Instead, the province was set to pass medically assisted suicide legislation on December 10, 2015, but a group of doctors attempted to fight the new legislation.

The Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice challenged the province’s plans to pass the legislation and brought this to the Quebec Superior Court. Their objection was on the basis of context of care and ethics.

They claim that what hasn’t been addressed by the courts is whether patients have been given all of the possible palliative care options, which they claim speaks directly to the issue of free and informed consent.

Paul Saba, head of the coalition, says they need to have the court respond to the question of whether doctor assisted suicide is considered a health service. Says Saba: "It even goes against my code of ethics in Quebec.  Under the code of ethics, if we have treatments to offer or an operation, we must always use the least dangerous."

Yesterday, the Quebec Superior Court issued a judgement which favoured Saba’s side, but not for the reasons the coalition brought up.

Rather, the court said, the legislation cannot become law in Quebec on December 10, because the federal government has yet to write their own new legislation on medically assisted suicide. Without new federal legislation, Quebec’s version would contravene the Criminal Code of Canada.

Saba had asked the court for an injunction against the new Quebec law, but the Superior Court refused to issue it. In fact, Justice Michel Pinsonnault made it clear that the ruling was not in favour of Saba’s arguments, but rather due to the new Quebec law’s incompatibility with current federal law.

While the coalition has indirectly won their challenge, once the federal government has created the new law, and amended the Criminal Code accordingly, the government of Quebec may very well be able to pass the legislation.

In the meantime, however, the government of Quebec is not taking this decision lying down. They plan to appeal.

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