Quebec Doctors Want their Euthanasia Practices Acknowledged, Legalized



February 17, 2010

By Patrick B. Craine, QUEBEC CITY, Quebec, February 16, 2010 ( – Doctors are already euthanizing patients in Quebec hospitals, the Quebec government’s legislative committee on the “right to die with dignity” heard yesterday.

The committee began a series of consultations with 30 experts and organizations yesterday, hearing from the Federation of Quebec Medical Specialists (FMSQ) and the Quebec College of Physicians (CMQ).

Gaétan Barrette, FMSQ’s president, told the committee that euthanasia is already being practiced in the province, as doctors know when death is “imminent and inevitable.”

He asked for the province to develop clear policies on how doctors can bring about a patient’s death, stating that currently doctors believe they could be charged with murder for giving a “palliative sedative” to a patient before they have reached the point of death.

“Doctors are ready to debate euthanasia,” Barrette said, comparing the change in thinking about euthanasia with that of abortion in years past.

Palliative sedation is the practice of relieving the pain of a patient on his or her death bed by administering pain medication.  In the effort to relieve a patient’s pain, it can sometimes happen that the dose of pain medication is increased to lethal levels, resulting in the patient’s death. Ethicists have typically clearly delineated between palliative sedation, in which death is an unintended effect of legitimate care, and euthanasia, which is the intentional ending of a patient’s life.

However, the FMSQ and the CMQ argue that this medical practice amounts to a form of euthanasia, and maintain that doctors could face charges for the practice under current Canadian law.

The CMQ presented the committee with their November 3rd reflection document yesterday and delivered a presentation based on that reflection.

The reflection document argued that there are “certain exceptional situations” where euthanasia would be part of appropriate end-of-life care, and thus called for its legalization.  They advocated that euthanasia be “integrated as a part of appropriate end-of-life care as soon as possible.”

Announcing the release of the document in November, CMQ Secretary Dr. Yves Robert stated, “We are saying death can be an appropriate type of care in certain circumstances.  This is a major breakthrough.”

But Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, insists that the proper use of palliative sedation does not constitute euthanasia, and that the medical practice has been upheld by the courts. Doctors, he says, are not risking criminal charges for the practice.

Schadenberg says he believes that the Quebec doctors are either “deliberately misleading the public” by claiming that the proper use of palliative sedation is euthanasia, or they are being “pleasantly honest” in admitting that doctors are criminally abusing sedatives to kill their patients.

“If [doctors] are abusing [the sedatives], then they’re correct” that sedation is euthanasia, he said.  “If they’re not abusing [them], then they’re not correct.”

“They’re admitting that they’re doing something improper, and then they’re saying that because we’re doing something improper, now we should legalize it,” he explained.

To the Quebec physicians he addressed the rhetorical question: “If I can’t trust you to remain within an ethical code when it’s illegal, then how am I supposed to trust you that if [euthanasia] were legal you would remain in that ethical code?”

“Because the abuse is happening already, that is resulting in euthanasia deaths, then what kind of abuse will take place when you legalize it?”

The Quebec legislative committee is set to hear from a number of euthanasia proponents, such as Jocelyn Downie of Dalhousie University, as well as euthanasia opponents like Dr. Margaret Somerville of McGill University.  They will use the expert testimony to develop a consultation document for a travelling public consultation, which is scheduled for the fall.

While euthanasia falls under the Criminal Code, which is a federal matter, the Quebec government has said that they wish to form a consensus on euthanasia in the province in order to pressure Ottawa for a change in the law.

A bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, Bill C-384, is currently before the Canadian Parliament.  The vote has been pushed back several times so far, and is currently expected for the middle of March.

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