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The Liberal government is telling the Supreme Court of Canada that those pushing for speedy implementation of right-to-die policies are strikingly naive about the legislative process.

In a submission to bolster its request for a six-month extension, the government says giving effect to a landmark decision on physician-assisted dying will require full parliamentary consideration as well as provincial legislation.

Last February, the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on doctor-assisted death.

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The court gave the federal government a year to come up with a new law recognizing the right of clearly consenting adults with intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help in ending their lives.

The new Liberal government recently asked the court to extend that deadline to early August to ensure "a thoughtful, sensitive and well-informed response."

Several parties have filed arguments on the federal request, and the Supreme Court is likely to issue a ruling soon.

In their submission to the court, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and individuals who spearheaded the groundbreaking case say an extension would be a setback for Canadians "who need relief from unbearable suffering immediately."

They say an extension "will be devastating" for Elayne Shapray, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and wants to end her life as soon as any legal impediments are removed – a remedy she might be denied.

The association's brief says there should be no extension or, if more time is granted, only a two-month extension with a built-in exemption that would allow individuals to ask a court to have their right to physician-assisted dying provided to them.

The federal government insists a six-month extension is needed and rejects the exemption idea as inappropriate because it doesn't fully deal with the regulatory demands of a system for doctor-assisted dying.

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The government says the civil liberties association's arguments "demonstrate a striking naivete concerning the policy development and legislative processes, and ignore the existence of a 'constitutional dialogue' between the courts and the legislatures."

The Supreme Court "recognized that the task facing legislators, of weighing and balancing many competing interests, was a difficult one," the government submission adds.

The suggestion that it is unnecessary to consult suicide prevention experts and other informed parties "is particularly troubling," it says.

"Parliament needs access to the best information available."

Last week the Liberals struck a special, joint House of Commons-Senate committee that is to consult broadly on the issue and report back with recommendations for legislative change by the end of February.

The government then plans to draft a law with the hope it will be approved by Parliament before the summer recess, well in advance of the proposed new August deadline.

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In its submission, the government says comprehensive regime for physician-assisted dying will entail regulation of:

  • What conduct is permitted;
  • Who gets access to physician-assisted dying, how, and on what terms;
  • The doctors involved and the institutions where death will occur.
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