Quebec's assisted dying law enacted as legal questions remain

Quebec is at a crossroads on end-of-life legal issues, with its medical-aid-in-dying law (formerly Bill 52) now in force after many years of public consultation, says Toronto health lawyer Mary Jane Dykeman.

According to the National Post, in enacting it, Quebec becomes “the first jurisdiction in North America to allow physicians to deliberately end patients’ lives.”

“However, things are not as simple as they appear,” says Dykeman, partner at DDO Health Law.

An appeal from a Quebec Superior Court decision suspending certain provisions of the Act is scheduled to be heard by the Quebec Court of Appeal on Dec. 18. It will determine whether the Quebec law contravenes the Criminal Code prohibitions on each of assisted suicide and consenting to the inflicting of death upon oneself.

Bill 52 was introduced prior to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Carter v. A.G., thus paving the way for what that court termed “physician assisted dying” as early as Feb. 6, 2016, says Dykeman.

This comes a week after the federal government formally requested that the Supreme Court grant a six-month extension to the Feb. 6 lifting of the Criminal Code prohibitions, says Dykeman.

“The irony is that for a period of almost two months — or longer if the Supreme Court grants the federal government’s requested extension of six months — a physician in Quebec must decide whether to proceed and provide the service, weighing the relative risks of facing a criminal prosecution in the intervening period before the federal laws change," she says.

"On the other hand, while the Registrar of the Collège des médecins du Québec in February 2014 said that the College had received assurances that once enacted, no such prosecutions will proceed, his current statement is less definitive: that while there would likely be little criminal risk, 'we cannot say there is no risk of prosecution.'"

The National Post also reports the federal government’s request to Quebec to delay bringing its Act into force pending federal consideration of the issue was “firmly rejected."

Legal arguments will continue about whether Quebec’s medical-aid-in-dying statute constitutes a medical act under the health care jurisdiction of provincial governments or whether it is instead a matter of federal criminal law powers, says Dykeman.

"The recent court developments may well cause some physicians to hesitate and refuse to provide the service for fear of criminal prosecution," she says. "Others may be willing to take the risk to assist individuals at the end of their lives for whom Feb. 6 or later is literally a lifetime away."

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