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Battle shaping up between Quebec and Ottawa on euthanasia

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

12/09/2015

OTTAWA (CCN) — A jurisdictional battle between Quebec and the federal government over euthanasia and assisted suicide is heading for the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC).

On Dec. 3, the federal government asked the SCC for a six-month extension on the Carter decision that had struck down sections of the Criminal Code against assisted suicide.  The Carter decision comes into effect Feb. 6, 2016, but the extension, if granted, would extend the suspension until August 6, 2016. That would leave the present prohibitions against assisted suicide and euthanasia in place until then.

Quebec argues “medical aid in dying” is health care and falls under provincial jurisdiction. It wanted to go ahead with its euthanasia law as planned Dec. 10 and seeks an exemption from the extension. Interested parties were given a Dec. 10 deadline to file with the SCC. The federal government asked for an expedited hearing on the matter.

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) executive director Alex Schadenberg said his organization would prefer the use of the notwithstanding clause and no law permitting euthanasia and assisted suicide. However, EPC has filed a factum with the court opposing Quebec’s being granted an exemption. Schadenberg said the worst scenario is a patchwork of differing laws on euthanasia across the country.

“The Quebec law is euthanasia,” Schadenberg said. “It’s not another form of assisted suicide with a few little interesting caveats. The Quebec law says doctors will do lethal injections.”

“From the beginning we say Quebec does not have the right to go it alone on this,” he said.

If the extension is granted, the federal government will establish an all-party special parliamentary committee to study the issue and make recommendations to the federal government on a legislative approach. The Criminal Code provisions would remain in place. The extension would also ensure provinces and territories “have the necessary time to continue the good work that is underway and responsibly prepare for the full implementation of the Carter decision,” a justice department release said.

“Canadians have made it clear they are looking for a real conversation about personal choice, health care and end-of-life care, and strong protection of the vulnerable,” said the release.

The Attorney General’s factum to the Supreme Court notes the importance of protecting “vulnerable people who might be at risk of a premature death, contrary to their true wishes. The significance of such a risk cannot be overstated.”

However, the Quebec National Assembly passed a unanimous motion Dec. 2 demanding Ottawa recognize the validity of its “medical aid in dying” law. Quebec politicians also expressed outrage that the federal government had intervened on the side of Montreal physician Dr. Paul Saba and a disabled woman, Lisa D’Amico, who successfully sought an injunction against the law.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Michel Pinsonnault granted the injunction Dec. 1.

Pinsonnault ruled the federal government has jurisdiction over the Criminal Code and “medical aid in dying” is a euphemism for euthanasia and creates confusion in the public between euthanasia and palliative care.

The judge said Criminal Code provisions apply until the Carter decision comes into effect Feb. 6.

The judge pointed out that the SCC did not add the word “medical” to aid in dying, and therefore did not shelter provincial laws that are incompatible with federal criminal law.

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, the Physicians’ Alliance Against Euthanasia and Living with Dignity, the Quebec-based grassroots group opposed to euthanasia, welcomed the injunction.

“With this clarification by the Quebec Superior Court, one cannot hide behind the obligation to provide ‘medical care’ in order to force Quebec physicians to participate, directly or indirectly, in the euthanasia of human beings,” said Living with Dignity in a press release.

Saba, who sought the injunction as an individual, though he is president of the Coalition of Physicians for Social Justice, said the Quebec law would force him as a physician to either perform euthanasia or refer patients. “I will neither perform the act nor refer so my ability to practice medicine is prejudiced,” he said.

He could be “severely sanctioned” by the College of Physicians for refusing to be involved in an act “that goes against the practice of medicine.”

“Euthanasia is not a medical act,” Saba said, noting that even in the jurisdictions like Holland and Belgium where it is legal it is not classified as health care the way Quebec is trying do to.

The jurisdictional battle has Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould on the hot seat with journalists for intervening in the Quebec case.

In a Dec. 4 scrum, Wilson-Raybould tried to convey a conciliatory message. “We’re working to find a solution that will ensure that we respect the substantive work that Quebec has done with respect to their legislation, recognizing other provinces and the Government of Canada as we move forward on this very sensitive and important issue,” she said.

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