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The collision course that may lead to change on assisted suicide

Gloria Taylor, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease and won a doctor-assisted suicide challenge in B.C. Supreme Court, speaks during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday June 18, 2012.. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Last week, Quebec became the first province in Canada – and one of the few places in the world – to allow its doctors to facilitate the death of terminally ill patients who wish to end their lives, with a lethal injection. The province should be lauded for passing legislation that snaps the law into line with what a majority of Quebeckers – and Canadians – believe: that the terminally ill should be empowered to decide when and how they end their lives.

Public opinion may be on the law's side, but Canada's Criminal Code is most definitely not. Federal law still considers doctor-assisted suicide illegal, a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison. That places Quebec on a collision course with Ottawa over doctor-assisted suicide. And perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

The Supreme Court's opinion on the subject is, at best, out of date. It has been almost 20 years since Sue Rodriguez, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, argued for the right to assisted suicide. Unable to walk or speak, she ended her life illegally, after the Supreme Court ruled against her in a 5-4 decision. The court found that Parliament, not the courts, should decide this issue.

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The trouble is, federal legislators have been incredibly reluctant to do so. The underlying fear is that doctor-assisted suicide is a slippery slope. Of course, the law always needs to err on the side of life. It needs to be certain that those who request doctor-assisted suicide are competent and sure of their choice. It needs to allow people to change their minds, and treat assisted suicide as an informed last resort.

Quebec has created a law that accomplishes exactly that. Patients would need to have an incurable illness and to be in "an advanced state of irreversible decline in capacities." They also need to be in constant and unbearable physical and psychological pain, impossible to relieve through medication. The law is built around individual choice. A patient would sign and date a consent form under the supervision of a physician. The patient, at any time, is able to change his or her mind.

Quebec has been able to skirt the Criminal Code because the new law treats the right to die as a medical matter – not a criminal one. Time will tell if the courts agree. In an ideal world, Ottawa would act before that. It's time the federal government acted on what the Supreme Court said 20 years ago, by reforming the law against assisted suicide. Quebec's new law should nudge Ottawa in that direction.

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