Supreme Court extends federal government's assisted suicide deadline

  • January 15, 2016

The federal government has been given four more months to come up with new laws and regulations to govern the practice of doctor-assisted suicide.

The Supreme Court of Canada granted the government a four-month extension on its Feb. 6 deadline for new rules, two months less than the government had asked for.

By a narrow five-to-four majority the court agreed the new Parliament needed extra time, but made it clear that it regards any delay as a violation of Canadian rights and freedoms.

“We do not at the same time see any need to unfairly prolong the suffering of those who meet the clear criteria,” the court wrote.
By clear criteria the judges were referring to their own definition of those eligible for physician assisted suicide —  “a grievous, intolerable and irremediable medical condition.”

Canadians who want a doctor’s help in killing themselves between now and the new June 6 deadline will be able to apply to a court for judicial authorization for assisted suicide.

“Requiring judicial authorization during that interim period ensures compliance with the rule of law and provides an effective safeguard against potential risks to vulnerable people,” said the court.

The Court last year recognized a right of Canadians to choose to kill themselves and concluded that sections of the criminal code that prevented doctors from helping people to kill themselves limit their rights in ways that are not consistent with a free and democratic society. The court struck down the criminal law against physician assisted suicide, but suspended the decision for 12 months to give Parliament to find ways to regulate the practice and make it generally available.

The previous Parliament launched a study, but the fall election delayed action.

Today’s extension does not apply in Quebec, where the province’s own law redefining assisted suicide as health care and therefore a matter for provincial regulation has been upheld by the courts.

Quebec today announced it had killed its first patient under its own assisted suicide. The patient lived in the national capital region near Quebec City. Under Quebec’s protocol, only doctors may administer a lethal injection to patients experiencing constant and unbearable physical or psychological suffering.

Who will administer physician assisted death and where are among the issues not yet determined by the federal government for the rest of the country. It is also unclear what will constitute a reasonable test to determine whether the patient has freely asked for help committing suicide, or what constitutes suffering.

A joint parliamentary committee of 11 MPs and five senators has been set up to study these and other issues, but the names on the committee were only released this week.

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