Right to die debate takes centre stage in Quebec

Originally published in the National Post September 5th, 2010. To go to the National Post website please click here

QUEBEC — The national debate on euthanasia and helping end the life of someone who wants to die is about to be rekindled by public hearings kicking off this week in Quebec.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under the Criminal Code, a federal statute that provinces cannot change.

But Quebec is determined to weigh in on the issue and has set up a commission that will travel to some 10 cities, starting on Tuesday in Montreal.

At the forefront of this 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 that has allowed assisted suicide but under strict guidelines.

“It’s 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 Quebec hearings will also hear from passionate opponents to euthanasia, who fear a “slippery slope” and that the criteria could change or be ignored. They are worried some people could feel pressured to seek help to end their life if they feel they are a burden for their family.

Groups like Living With Dignity, a non-religious group focused on end-of-life issues, argue some people might automatically support euthanasia because they’re not informed. They are also calling for better palliative care.

The president of the commission, Geoffrey Kelley, a Liberal member of legislature, expects the hearings to be very emotional.

“These questions are deep and we are talking about the value of life, the conditions around these difficult and poignant moments in life,” he said.

Observers say there is no momentum to amend Canada’s law that criminalizes assisted suicide and euthanasia and Quebec’s debate is not likely to change that.

“I think it will have zero influence on the current government except that it will increase the pressure [for a public debate],” said Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

But ethicist Margaret Somerville would not be surprised to see Quebec seek a constitutional challenge by arguing assisted suicide, although currently a federal criminal law matter, is a health care issue that falls under provincial jurisdiction.