The Quebec government says it will proceed with so-called "dying with dignity" legislation aimed at allowing doctors to help some terminally ill patients end their lives.
A provincial panel of legal experts studying medically assisted end-of-life procedures released its recommendations Tuesday, suggesting Quebec could bypass the Canadian Criminal Code — which prohibits assisted suicide — and allow doctors to help some people who wish to die at a time of their own choosing.
The panel concludes that when a terminally ill patient is receiving palliative treatment and can demonstrate with lucidity the desire to end his or her life, helping that patient carry out that wish should be considered part of the continuum of care.
"Every person should be able to make their own choice according to their values and according to their experience, their life, at the end of their life," said Jean-Paul Ménard, who led the legal panel.
Ménard said the decision on whether to comply with a patient's request would be left to doctors to judge, on a case by case basis.
"The doctor will always be free ... in this kind of process," he said, adding that if a physician refused to help a terminally ill patient die, that patient would be free to seek help from another doctor.
The federal government has made it clear it is unwilling to change the law, announcing last summer that it would appeal a June ruling by British Columbia's Supreme Court, which partially struck down the ban on assisted suicide.
Judge Lynn Smith's ruling said the Criminal Code section that targets anyone who "aids or abets a person to commit suicide" should not apply to doctors honouring the wish of a terminally ill patient.
Gloria Taylor, the B.C. woman who brought the suit before the court, died in October, but the B.C. Civil Liberties Association is carrying on her legal fight.
Véronique Hivon, Quebec's social services minister, said the 400-page report by the Ménard committee concludes the province is on solid legal ground in proceeding with its legislation and does not need Ottawa's co-operation to move forward.
"The constitutional basis is clear," said Hivon. "We are really in a field of regulating end-of-life care — and adding the possibility for somebody to have access to medical aid in dying."
While still in opposition, Hivon served on a multi-party task force comprised of nine MNAs, who spent two years travelling around the province holding public hearings and studying end-of-life issues.
The task force's landmark Quebec report in 2012 recommended that doctors be allowed to help terminally ill patients die, in exceptional circumstances, if that is their wish.
Opponents fear changing the law could be the start of a slippery slope that would see some people killed without their explicit consent or people suffering from depression or other psychological pain helped to die, even though they are not terminally ill.
"There are scary precedents," said Georges Buscemi, the president of the Quebec Life Coalition, referring to the recent case of 45-year-old deaf twins in Belgium who chose to die by lethal injection on Dec. 14, after learning they were going blind.
"Give it a few years, and you'll have cases like these twins," said Buscemi. "The floodgates open."