McGill's Freethought Association hosted a panel on assisted suicide on March 15 to discuss the federal decriminalization of physician-assisted dying, which will come into effect on June 6 this year, and how this policy will affect Quebec. This follows the Feb. 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, instating the right to physician-assisted suicide. Prior to that, Quebec had been the only province to allow terminally ill patients to determine how their life ended.. The panellists addressed issues raised by opponents to medically assisted dying, and discussed necessary changes to Quebec law as a result of federal decriminalization.
Susan Desjardins, who spoke on behalf of Dying with Dignity Canada, an organisation that advocates for physician-assisted dying, addressed concerns of various groups in opposition to the Court's ruling. In one example, she criticised the Catholic Health Sponsors of Ontario for instructing institutions within its purview not to provide access to medical assistance in dying.
"This flies in the face of the views of Catholics polled regarding assisted dying," Desjardins said. "In October 2014, 85 per cent of Catholics polled supported physician assisted dying."
Dr. Carolyn Ellis, associate professor at the McGill Biomedical Ethics Unit, highlighted the difficulties for healthcare professionals to publicly support medically assisted dying even though many polls indicate that most physicians in Quebec are in favour of it.
"It's harder to speak up in favour of it, in fear that then you'll be stigmatized as a doctor who kills,” Ellis said. “The fear factor of human nature leads people to not go public about some important values, but they're willing to participate."
Desjardins discussed a report by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Physician Assisted Dying, published on Feb. 25, which made 21 recommendations to assist the Canadian government in its efforts to legislate the decriminalization of physician-assisted dying,.
"The recommendations ensure that the conscience rights of healthcare professionals are protected, that access to assisted dying is monitored, and that the laws and protocols associated with medical assistance in dying are reviewed by parliament on a regular basis" Desjardins said.
Ellis, who testified at the Joint Parliamentary Committee, discussed the recommendations made on eligibility. She argued that an individual's capacity to consent should be the driving factor in whether or not they're granted authority to consent on their own behalf.
"In Quebec and two other provinces age is a legal factor in whether you can consent for medical interventions,” said Ellis. “The more consistent view would be, if one is able to make the particular medical decision at hand, that they should do so."
Legislation in Quebec
Jean-Pierre Ménard, a specialist in the defence of victims in the health system and professor at Université de Sherbrooke, Université de Quebec Á Montreal, and Université de Montreal, addressed a concern expressed by an audience member regarding abuse of medical assistance in dying.
"Under Quebec Law, nobody can suggest or propose that the patient should have assisted death," Ménard said. "A doctor has to make sure that the patient is totally free of any kind of outside pressure, and that they're fully informed, and a second doctor has to confirm the process."
Ellis mentioned Quebec's role as a leader in this field being the only province currently that permits medically assisted dying. Nevertheless, she claimed that the scope of the provincial law will have to be broadened in order to avoid inconsistency with the forthcoming federal legislation.
"It's very clear from our comments that Quebec Law is inconsistent with this [federal] law," Ellis said. "It's a much more conservative view and it will need to somehow bring itself into compliance with the forthcoming federal law."