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Canada Government launches doctor-assisted dying consultations

Wanda Morris, CEO of Dying With Dignity,is pictured during a press conference after the Supreme Court of Canada announced that Canadian adults who are mentally competent and suffering intolerably and permanently, have the right to doctor assisted dying after the Court's judgement was released on Feb 6 2015. The government has now started a public consultation process on the issue.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Harper government has launched a consultation process on doctor-assisted dying that effectively puts the politically fraught issue on the backburner until after the Oct. 19 election.

It has set up an academic panel to conduct public consultations and propose legislative options for dealing with the matter. But it's not asking the panel to report back until late fall.

The three-member panel is to consult with medical authorities and other interested parties and conduct an online public consultation with Canadians generally.

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In its final report, the panel is to provide the government with options for responding to last February's ruling by the Supreme Court, which struck down the prohibition on physician-assisted death.

The top court gave the government 12 months to craft a new law that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help to end their lives.

In a release announcing the panel Friday, Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Health Minister Rona Ambrose specify that the panel is to consult with those who intervened in the Supreme Court case, "who represent a spectrum of diverse perspectives."

The court case was initiated by 89-year-old Kathleen Carter, who did not live long enough to witness her legal victory. Ms. Carter, who suffered from a painful, degenerative spinal condition, travelled to Switzerland in 2010 to obtain a medically assisted death.

The panel's chairman is psychiatry professor Harvey Max Chochinov, the Canada research chair in palliative care at the University of Manitoba.

His co-panellists are University of Ottawa law professor Benoît Pelletier, a constitutional expert and former Quebec cabinet minister; and Catherine Frazee, former co-director of Ryerson University's institute for disability research and education.

The government has been dragging its feet on the issue since the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in February.

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Mr. MacKay last month signalled that the Conservative government, if re-elected this fall, would ask the court to extend the 12-month deadline for drafting a new law. He cited time constraints caused by the election.

However some legal experts have doubted the court would grant an extension since the government has done little to advance the file in the months leading up to the election.

The Conservatives voted against a Liberal motion in late February that called for the creation of a multi-party special committee to consult and report back to Parliament by mid-summer with a proposed framework for a new law. At that time, the government argued that a broader public consultation process was required and promised to launch one "very soon."

Mr. MacKay has already said the government will not propose new legislation until after the Oct. 19 election.

The issue is particularly touchy for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservative caucus and party support base include a strong pro-life contingent that is adamantly opposed to medically assisted dying.

A number of Tory backbenchers have urged the government to invoke the constitutional notwithstanding clause to override the Supreme Court and reinstate the ban on assisted death.

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But opinion polls suggest an overwhelming majority of Canadians want the legal right to choose to die with dignity, with the help of a doctor.

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