Euthanasia hearings spark questions over Ottawa's role

Originally published in the National Post September 8th, 2010. To go to the National Post website, please click here

Quebec could take a cue from B.C.s selective stance on prosecuting assisted suicide cases, according to the head of a provincial commission who suggests the public may be open to a solution that doesnt involve asking the federal government to change the Criminal Code.

Its been suggested that British Columbia has been far more selective in charging people with assisted suicide, said Geoff Kelley, a Liberal member of Quebecs National Assembly and president of the commission, which begins public hearings today. Palliative care, questions of the code of ethics for medical professions, all those are under the provincial jurisdiction, as are questions of the administration of justice.

Hoping to reignite a national debate about assisted suicide and the way patients die, the ethics of euthanasia will be debated by Quebecers through a travelling commission that will make stops in 10 cities, starting today in Montreal, before its conclusion. The commission, entitled Dying with Dignity, first held hearings for medical, legal and ethical experts in February. Now, the provincial politicians want to hear from the public in Quebec.

And although the Criminal Code of Canada, a federal statute provinces cant change, currently deems euthanasia illegal, Quebec is determined to weigh in on the issue.

At the forefront of the debate in Quebec are people like Ghislain Leblond, a 65-year-old former deputy minister in the government who suffers from a neurological degenerative illness.

The man, now wheelchair bound, is fighting to get the right, if his life becomes unbearable, to request ; and be given ; assistance to die. This is not something easy for me or for my family. No one wishes to be euthanized, Mr. Leblond said in an interview. But if what I fear the most ; which is to become totally paralyzed and a prisoner of my body ; happens, I want to have the freedom to decide to seek assistance to put an end to my life.

Mr. Leblond wants Quebec to follow the example of Belgium, which allows assisted suicide under strict guidelines. Its a question of freedom of choice and people will be able to make a decision according to their values, he said. Two U.S. states, Oregon and Washington, have adopted a law similar to that of Belgium, while the Netherlands and Luxembourg have legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The Canadian Medical Association says it does not support euthanasia or assisted suicide, but Dr. Gaétan Barrette, president of Quebecs Fédération des médecins spécialistes, says the CMAs policy is hard-line, influenced by religious beliefs, and needs to change.

The CMA is out of focus on that one, he says, adding that euthanasia is already widely practised in the province ; through medicinal measures known as palliative sedation ; and the government needs to clarify its definition.

What is called palliative sedation in itself is an action that will induce death at the very end of his or her life. That in essence is a form of euthanasia. We could be prosecuted for that. We are not promoting euthanasia. We are just saying that we hear about it from our patients. We think it is time to have a law. Practically, we think that legislation is not synchronized with public opinion in this province.