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Opinion Time for a transparent debate on assisted suicide

The prospect of a law allowing medically assisted suicide wasn't mentioned in the Speech from the Throne, but there is no doubt that this issue will come up some time in 2016. Canada will then, perhaps, follow the path of Quebec and allow, under certain conditions, physicians to provide patients who ask to die with a lethal injection.

Let's hope, though, that the federal government will lead a frank and transparent debate rather than bury the matter under euphemisms and misleading propaganda.

The Quebec law on "medical aid in dying" was sold to the public as "the right to die in dignity" – two expressions that many would associate with palliative care – and this is exactly what Quebeckers thought the law was about.

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Shortly before the law was adopted, an Ipsos survey showed that 40 per cent of respondents did not know the meaning of the word "euthanasia" and that for 51 per cent the law was synonymous with palliative care or with the cessation of aggressive therapies that artificially prolong the life of a terminally ill patient.

Since the issue was obfuscated by both the National Assembly and uncritical media, there has not been a real public debate about an issue that has been controversial wherever it has been discussed and that is far from being widely accepted (only four European countries and a handful of U.S. states allow assisted suicide).

The rare opponents who dared come out publicly against the "Quebec consensus" were labelled as backward religious zealots, even though most of them were palliative-care specialists with an intimate knowledge of life and death.

Moreover, the whole Quebec political class, for once united, declared that this law was part of health care, part of a "continuum of end-of-life treatments" – as if injecting a patient with curare was as innocuous as a massage or a small dose of morphine.

By pretending that this was a "health-care" issue, thus a provincial jurisdiction, Quebec was trying to get around the Criminal Code, which forbids assisted suicide and euthanasia. Of course, this misleading scheme was destined to collapse at the first judicial challenge, and this happened last week, when the Quebec Superior Court decreed that the law could not be applied because it violates the Criminal Code.

The federal Attorney-General took the side of the complainants, arguing that the implementation of the law should be delayed until the Criminal Code is amended. There was a huge outcry in Quebec and the province is appealing the verdict. But the judge had no choice – he only needed a dictionary to see that the law's wording was misleading – and Ottawa had no choice, either. What would we say about a government willing to ignore the Criminal Code just to please political allies?

Last February, the Supreme Court of Canada gave Ottawa a year to amend the Criminal Code in order to allow medically assisted suicide not only to terminally ill patients, as in the Quebec law, but also to anyone with an incurable illness and unbearable pain.

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The former Conservative government, unsurprisingly, hardly moved. Now, the Liberal government is asking the Supreme Court for a six-month delay, which is quite sensible. Changing the Criminal Code on such a delicate issue will obviously require time and attention.

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