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February 19, 2014
Quebec tables assisted suicide proposal

A controversial bill to allow assisted suicide has passed first reading in the Quebec National Assembly. If implemented, Quebec would be the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow doctors to help end the life of terminally ill patients.

Under the province’s proposals, doctors would be protected from prosecution when they provide an end-of-life  mechanism, such as a lethal self-injection, to a patient facing a confirmed terminal illness.  

While Quebec civil law prevents euthanasia (the termination of a life by a doctor,)  the Quebec government argues that assisted suicide (providing the means for a terminally ill patient to end his/her own life,) represents a “continuum” of health care.  

“This has nothing to do with criminal matters and everything to do with medical care,” says Quebec Social Services Minister Véronique Hivon.  “The public has placed high expectations on us.  This law would provide the best response to their suffering.”

Under the proposed law, a patient requesting end-of-life treatment would have to be an adult resident of Quebec,  be capable of providing consent to the procedure and be in the advanced stages of a terminal illness.  At least two physicians would also have to confirm that the patient meets the criteria.  Input from the patient’s family would also have to be collected.

The right-to-die bill is expected to be hotly contested by right-to-life advocates, religious groups,  as well as those favouring more funding for hospital or palliative care facilities. The bill has to be reviewed by legislative committees and be approved twice more by the Assembly before it becomes law.   Final approval may be years away.

If passed, the Quebec law will present unique challenges to the insurance industry.  Today, no life insurance benefits are paid to those who commit suicide within two years of purchase of a policy.  Paid premiums are refunded to the estate or plan beneficiaries.  However, should a medically assisted suicide of a terminally ill person occur within a hospital, will the old rules of the life insurance industry still apply?  If so, would the unsupervised suicide of a terminally person be subject to different claims adjudication rules?  

Clearly, the Quebec law could open moral and legal debates in the years to come.

To date, assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and in the states of Washington and Oregon.

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