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Right-to-die bill doesn’t deserve to die on the order paper

Quebec Minister for Social Services and Youth Protection Veronique Hivon explains a legislation on the right to die in dignity at a news conference, Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Imagine, if you will, right-do-die legislation dying on the order paper.

The irony is palpable.

That is a very real possibility in Quebec's National Assembly today.

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So how did it come to this?

The legislation, Bill 52, an Act respecting end of life care, has been debated for more than four years.

There have been two exhaustive reports by committees of experts. There have been two rounds of public hearings. The bill has gone through its requisite readings and debate. It also has all-party support – something almost unheard of in Quebec's world of polarized politics. All that remains is the final reading, and a vote.

In short, adoption of the law is all but a given – once there is a vote.

So what's the hold-up?

The short answer is: petty politics. The longer answer is some desperate gamesmanship at the expense of the public good.

On Thursday, Quebec's minority Parti Québécois government will table a budget. Then it will adjourn legislative work until March 11.

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During that break, an election could be called and all proposed legislation – including Bill 52 – will die on the order paper.

The PQ – as most governments do right before an election call – offered to rush through several bills if there was all-party support for curtailing prescribed debate time.

The opposition Liberal Party of Quebec and Coalition action démocratique refused, saying they wanted to exercise the right of each MNA to speak on the final version of the bill before the vote. Forty Liberals and four CAQ members have indicated they wanted to speak, and each is allowed a maximum 10 minutes.

The PQ then offered to sit all night Tuesday and part of the day Wednesday to go through the charade – and it is a charade because, after four years, nothing new will be said – but the Liberals again refused (the CAQ backed down) saying: "What's the rush. There's been no formal election call." (This is a paraphrase.)

Essentially, the opposition parties, who are trailing in the polls, have created this faux crisis as a way to distract from the planned feel-good budget.

They have created a situation where a bill that has wide public support will not be adopted so they can get a few more minutes of face-time on the TV news.

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And we wonder why the public is cynical about politics?

The good news is that, at the end of the day – whether the Liberals 'graciously' lift their objections and vote or the bill has to be re-introduced and voted on after an election - Quebec will get new medical aid in dying legislation.

That's because all the parties have vowed to re-introduce the medical aid at end-of-life legislation after the not-yet-officially-called election.

The tragedy is that, in the interim, very real suffering will continue, and for no good reason.

While much of the attention on Bill 52 has centred on the provisions allowing physician-assisted death, that is only a small part of the law and it will never be relevant to more than a tiny percentage of the population.

On that front, there is a big legal battle ahead, revolving around constitutional powers – Ottawa has jurisdiction over the Criminal Code but Quebec plans to issue directives to Crown Attorneys to not prosecute anyone who "aids or abets a person to commit suicide" if certain conditions are meant. We would all benefit from that fight being settled sooner rather than later.

Far more important for patients are the provisions of the law that would result in a significant expansion of palliative care, allowing citizens better access to pain control and enhanced care at end-of-life.

We should, as a society, be doing everything in our power to ensure everyone has a dignified death.

That some Quebec politicians cannot put aside their partisanship for a short time to embrace this principle and choose instead to make the dying political pawns, is shameful and undignified.

André Picard is The Globe's health columnist.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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