By Patrick B. Craine

QUEBEC CITY, Quebec, December 4, 2009 ( – The Quebec government agreed yesterday to open public debate on the so-called “right to die,” by establishing a non-partisan ad hoc commission mandated to seek public and expert opinion on the issue.

The government's move comes in response to a motion filed yesterday by three members of the province's Parti Quebecois (PQ), including leader Pauline Marois (Charlevoix), who asked Premier Jean Charest to establish such a commission.

While euthanasia and assisted suicide are Criminal Code issues, and are thus under federal jurisdiction, the PQ insist that Quebec must form a consensus in order to pressure Ottawa for a change in the law.

A private member's bill, C-384, is currently before the Canadian Parliament, seeking to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide.  The bill underwent first reading on October 2nd, but its sponsor, Francine Lalonde (BQ – Point de L'Ile), has traded back the vote several times, seemingly in an effort to overcome the strong opposition among MPs.

The Quebec National Assembly's standing committee on health and social services will begin their consultations by seeking expert testimony, which will form the basis for a consultation document.

“There are many elements that we must reflect on, including the definition of terms, end-of-life care and, equally, how we accompany these people,” stated Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc, according to the CBC. “We all have the same intention – that is to say, that people can die with dignity.”

“Now we need to consider ways to make that happen and help improve people's situation,” he added, reports the Canadian Press.

“I believe more than ever that the population is ready to hold this debate,” said Marois.  “Quebecers are people who understand the suffering of others and they want to find solutions.”

“Giving the choice and the right, but only in exceptional cases, to those who have absolutely no more quality of life, who have no future due to an incurable illness, to die with dignity in making a totally free and enlightened decision could be one of the possible avenues,” she added.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, told that the Quebec government's decision is “very concerning, because Quebec is, in my interpretation, attempting to usurp federal jurisdiction.”  “In Canada, we need uniform laws, whether you're in Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, or wherever,” he added.

Recent polls in Quebec seem to indicate widespread support for euthanasia.  For example, in an August Angus Reid poll of 800 Quebecers, 3 out of 4 respondents said they thought euthanasia should be legalized.

In explaining her motion, Marois highlighted several Quebec organizations that have recently called for debate on euthanasia, including the Federation of Medical Specialists and the Federation of General Practitioners.

The Quebec College of Physicians (CMQ), further,came out in favor of legalizing euthanasia last month.  Announcing their new statement, CMQ Secretary Dr. Yves Robert explained, “We are saying death can be an appropriate type of care in certain circumstances. … This is a major breakthrough.”

Schadenberg said, however, there has been a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of euthanasia, which has been especially exacerbated by the CMQ.  “The Quebec Physicians have been creating confusion about the issue of the use of pain drugs [and] terminal sedation,” he said.

The CMQ has called for euthanasia based on their notion that it is a form of euthanasia to kill a patient while using large doses of drugs to relieve his or her pain.  But, says Schadenberg, “sedating people … even aggressively, if it's done properly, if it's not abused, is not euthanasia.”

“Let's be clear about what this is about,” he said.  “Euthanasia is the direct and intentional cause of [a person's] death, usually by a physician.”

The confusion over euthanasia is “creating a freeze,” Schadenberg continued.  “Physicians who are not well-trained in palliative care are hesitating to use large doses of pain management drugs because they don't want to euthanize someone, whereas in fact, we don't want people to be in pain. … This false discussion has created this type of a problem.”

In announcing their motion, the PQ pointed to the example set by previous states that have legalized euthanasia, such as the Netherlands.  Euthanasia opponents, however, have pointed to such countries as evidence against legalization, highlighting, for example, the prevalence of 'death tourism' in those countries.  Critics have also noted that the Netherlands reported that 550 people had been killed without their request in 2008.

Canada should heed the warning of former Dutch Health Minister Els Borst, Schadenberg said.  Borst, who proposed the bill that legalized euthanasia in the Netherlands in 2001, recently expressed regret, indicating that the Dutch government should have focused first on developing palliative care services in the country.

“As much as Quebec might want to talk about euthanasia and assisted suicide, I think they're looking at the wrong issue,” Schadenberg elaborated.  “We have to be looking at our system of how we care for people, not how we're going to kill them.”

See related coverage:

Pro-Life MP Disappointed that Vote on Euthanasia Bill Has Been Delayed Again 

'Is the Quebec College of Physicians Deliberately Confusing Canadians on Euthanasia?' Asks Anti-Euthanasia Leader

New Poll Reveals that Canadians are Conflicted About Legal Euthanasia  

Former Dutch Health Minister Admits Error of Legalizing Euthanasia 

Anti-Euthanasia Group Questions Survey Suggesting Quebec MDs are Favorable to Euthanasia