Canada's Supreme Court Tentatively Green Lights Physician Assisted Suicide, But Gives Government Extension To Produce Legislation Governing Practice

On Friday, the Supreme Court in Canada gave an official ruling to allow doctor assisted suicide under certain specific circumstances across the country and in a vote of five to four, it also granted the government four months to pass a law that would govern doctors taking part in the practice.

A ban on the highly controversial practice of physician-assisted suicide had been overturned by the Supreme court last year February and Canada joined a few other countries in the Western hemisphere to actually make it legal. However, it was not to be fully legalized for a year, to give the time needed to draft legislation to govern the new law. Fridays's decision came after officials had a confirmed case of physician assisted suicide in the French-speaking province of Quebec. Quebec's assisted dying law came into effect in December and the courts ruled to uphold that as well.

The schedule for the production of the legislation got derailed by the October elections and the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his liberals defeated the Conservative government. A new justice minister was appointed and had asked for a six month extension on the time limit but the Supreme Court of Canada decided instead to grant permission for physician assisted suicide to begin taking place now on a small scale and granted the government an additional four months, meaning that by June the ban will be scrapped altogether.

However, according to The Chronicle Herald the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia released the first draft of the legislation to govern the practice on the exact same day as the court's decision. While the court awaited the government's draft, the specifics outlining an exemption meant that persons who wanted the assistance with dying could submit a formal application and be considered. Dr. Gus Grant, registrar and CEO of the college asked willing doctors to be ready to provide the service. Grant says that he has heard an enormous amount of pleas from patients for physician assisted suicide and while they wait for the government the draft that the college provided can be an outline.

"I have emails from patients saying, 'I've waited years for this, I'm suffering, please help me access this right.' And so this document, in the absence of any intervention by government or governments, will provide guidance to physicians and to patients as to how to access this right."
The Supreme court admitted that while it understands the need for more time it could not in good conscience allow others to continue to suffer in the interim. The application of those wishing to take part in the physician assisted suicide will entail the patients applying to any superior court in their home province for "relief in accordance with the criteria" that the court had outlined last year February. CBC News reported that when making the decision the majority referred to their original decision.
"In agreeing that more time is needed, we do not at the same time see any need to unfairly prolong the suffering of those who meet the clear criteria we set out."
While no doctor can be compelled to take part in physician assisted suicide if they do not wish, Grant is asking that they at least refer the patients to a willing physician if they request it and this is outlined in the draft the college presented. Grant also believes that there needs to be formal training provided to physicians who would participate in the program.

Advocacy groups have expressed their disappointment in the delay of the law passing through all of Canada and the extension given to the government. In a statement, it has been noted that by the end of the four months they will accept "nothing less than a framework for assisted dying that serves patients' needs, not those of politicians."

[Photo via Art Babych/Shutterstock]