Death is an integral part of life and, for most people, the concept of living a good life includes a peaceful, dignified end. But for some Canadians, suffering from unbearable pain and incurable illness, that is currently impossible.
Quebec should be lauded for its effort to change that, with a bill that seeks to sensibly regulate how a physician can deliberately end a patient’s life. If Bill 52 passes, Quebec will become the first province to allow what polls suggest the vast majority of Canadians believe: that the terminally ill should be empowered to decide when and how they die.
The Parti Québécois has wisely framed the difficult discussion around euthanasia as a medical and not a criminal matter. The “Act respecting end-of-life care” is a well-reasoned proposal that outlines acceptable scenarios for euthanasia. They are appropriately narrow, with several layers of safeguards in place.
The patient must be suffering from an incurable illness, and be in constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain as a result. The person must also be in an advanced state of irreversible decline and be near the end of life. They must be at least 18 years of age, of sound mind, and certain of their choice.
Under the proposed law, the physician also plays a crucial role, assisting the patient in weighing options other than death. The physician cannot work in isolation, and is required to seek a second opinion from another doctor, who must agree that there is no hope of recovery. Quebec’s criteria closely resemble the rigorous six-part test offered in the Netherlands, which legalized physician-assisted suicide in 2002. Each year, many requests for euthanasia are rejected, particularly in cases of depression.
Bill 52 is not perfect. It essentially skirts the Criminal Code, which still makes it illegal to assist someone in ending their life, a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison. If the bill becomes law, Quebec’s Justice Minister will likely instruct prosecutors not to press charges against physicians who perform euthanasia. It would have been preferable to change the Criminal Code itself, rather than doing an end-run around it. But that’s beyond the scope of Quebec’s National Assembly. And the last time such a proposed rewrite of the Criminal Code came before Parliament, in 2010, it was voted down.
Some believe that Quebec’s Bill 52 is a slippery slope, taking us into a world where the state involuntarily kills off the elderly, or the handicapped, or the expensive to care for. It’s hard to see how this legislation, built around individual choice, could lead to that. Others say this bill is just a first step, by pointing to Belgium, which recently expanded its euthanasia law to include minors. Quebec has given no indication it seeks to emulate Belgium’s approach, and there’s no reason it should.
The question of how to end a life is a fraught matter. It comes with no happy solutions, only difficult choices. And within that sad reality, Quebec’s legislation tries to chart a responsible way forward, by offering a compassionate alternative to those whose lives have been transformed into agony by terminal illness.