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July 02, 2014
Quebec passes assisted suicide bill

Quebec has become the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow terminally ill patients to choose to
die with the help of a physician.

In a 94-22 vote, Quebec’s National Assembly endorsed the bill virtually unchanged from the earlier provisions tabled in April by the former Parti Quebecois government.  The bill was supported by members of all four parties represented in the National Assembly.

Under the new 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, be in the advanced stages of a terminal illness and be experiencing constant and unbearable physical or psychological suffering.  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.  (See the January 2014 and March 2014 issues of the Coughlin Courier for background.)

No doctor will be obligated to perform euthanasia.

According to former Quebec Social Services Minister Véronique Hivon, the original sponsor of the bill, “medical aid in dying” will only be available to a small number of terminally ill people whose suffering cannot be relieved by traditional palliative care.

“There will be this emergency exit, there will be this exceptional option in circumstances of exceptional suffering,” she explained.  “Dying with dignity means dying with the least amount of suffering.”  

The passage of the bill has been opposed by right-to-life organizations and civil liberties groups, who have vowed to challenge the new law in the courts.  As well, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and other medical professionals have suggested that the law will divert resources from improving the country’s palliative care facilities.

According to the CMA, less than 30 per cent of Canadians who will die in 2014 will have access to palliative care.  The group is urging the federal government to develop a national palliative care strategy.

The Quebec law may also present some challenges to the insurance industry.  Today, no life insurance benefits are paid to those who commit suicide within two years of purchasing 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 not, would the unsupervised suicide of a terminally ill person be subject to different claims adjudication rules?

Interpretations of the new Quebec law by insurers and the courts will be worth watching in the months ahead.

The legislation will go into effect in early 2016.

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