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Potent Breakthrough in Canada

Last week the government of Quebec announced plans to recognize aid in dying as a legal and protected medical practice in the province. They promise a new law by this summer.

A patient in a hospital bed with an IV.

Quebec wants to legalize and regulate assisted suicide, against the wishes of Canada's federal authorities.

A tremendously exciting announcement, it reveals a seismic shift in the thinking of both medical and political leaders. I cannot overstate the magnitude and power of this shift, and fervently hope America’s medical associations and politicians soon follow suit.

Specifically, the government of Quebec intends to regulate aid in dying in spite of the federal crime of assisting a suicide. As in the U.S., federal laws generally supersede provincial ones, and most people assume laws against assisting a suicide prevent doctors from providing life-ending medication to qualified patients who ask.

Canada’s national spokespeople are irate because they, too, hold this assumption. They respond that Quebec cannot change Canada’s criminal code. Even now federal lawyers are defending the assisted-suicide law against a British Columbia judge’s ruling that it’s unconstitutional as applied to aid in dying. They say federal law defines the crime broadly and they must defend it because parliament has repeatedly rejected reform.

But Quebec disagrees, says it intends to proceed and will stand on firm legal ground when it does. The Quebec government is confident it has the authority to adopt law and policy to meet its citizens’ deep desire for more choices at the end of life. How is this possible?

It is possible because aid in dying is different from assisting suicide. It is as different as a surgery is from a stabbing. One is a crime and the other a careful medical practice. Governments outlaw stabbings, but that doesn’t prevent them from regulating surgeries.

Apparently in Canada’s separation of powers, the federal government defines and prosecutes crime, and the provinces oversee healthcare. Quebec health officials have simply adopted the common-sense view that easing the suffering of a dying patient and ensuring a peaceful and pain-free death is a medical matter, not a criminal one. And as such, it falls under the jurisdiction of the province to regulate the practice of medicine.

For well over a decade Compassion & Choices has argued vigorously for a change from the language of “suicide.” We urge that “Language Matters,” as we call on academics, public officials, journalists and headline writers to employ neutral, accurate words to refer to assisted death. Oregon’s experience informs much of the national dialogue, yet commentators notoriously deploy inflammatory suicide language in what should be neutral public forums. Assisting a suicide is a felony in Oregon; to call medical procedures under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act “assisted suicide” falsely labels them a crime.

Assisting a suicide – to maliciously goad a mentally ill person to act on his self-destructive impulses – should be understood as a crime. Aid in dying – to mercifully respond to a rational dying person’s request to abbreviate his suffering –should be understood as medical practice. Repeatedly, anti-choice forces have won political contests by blurring this stark and monumental distinction. That tactic just lost its mojo in Quebec.

Here, finally, officials are no longer blind to the distinction between assisted suicide and aid in dying, and they embrace its concrete legal consequences. Here at last comes validation that we have not been merely picking at semantics. Different words evoke different circumstances and different conduct.

Don’t think the blinders fell suddenly. Exhaustive study and deliberation by prominent entities gradually, carefully, broadened the perspectives and changed the formal position of government.

Doctors took the first step. In 2006 the provincial medical association, the Collège des Médecins du Québec, embarked on three years of study in which it examined modern medicine and society, polled its members, and reflected on the results. The Collège’s refreshing and authoritative discussion paper, Physicians, Appropriate Care and the Debate on Euthanasia – A Reflection, came out in October 2009 and launched the serious dialogue now bearing fruit.

Quebec’s National Assembly responded by appointing an all-party select committee that held hearings and deliberated for two years. Last March it published a beautiful report of findings and recommendations. Its 178 pages are available in English and well worth the read.

Finally, the government appointed three expert lawyers to a judicial panel to make policy recommendations and propose steps to implementation. It is this report that lays out the legal rationale and explains how the Assembly and the Ministry of Health are to proceed. For French readers, the 400-page document is available here.

The lesson here is that lawyers and politicians go where doctors lead them. They want doctors to decide what constitutes ethical practice for the 21st century. Tradition-bound medical societies of the United States (notably the AMA) guard their historic dominance in the doctor/patient relationship and refuse to acknowledge changing public expectations. They resist measures that entrust to patients crucial decisions about their own lives and deaths. They have used and continue to use their enormous political power and vast treasure to obstruct sane policy on aid in dying.

Other, more progressive medical societies (notably the American Medical Women’s Association and the American Public Health Association) have embraced change and support both the use of accurate language and the option of aid in dying.

With this enlightened example to our north, perhaps American medicine cannot continue its obstructionism much longer.

Photo by José Goulão released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.

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BarbaraCoombsLee

BarbaraCoombsLee

Barbara Coombs Lee is President of Compassion & Choices, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding and protecting the rights of the terminally ill. She practiced as a nurse and physician assistant for 25 years before beginning a career in law and health
policy.

Since then she has devoted her professional life to individual choice and empowerment in health care. As a private attorney, as counsel to the Oregon State Senate, as a managed care executive and finally as Chief Petitioner for Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, she has championed initiatives that enable individuals to consider a full range of choices and be full participants in their health care decisions.

Ms. Lee took her undergraduate education at Vassar College and Cornell University and obtained advanced degrees in law and medicine from the University of Washington and Lewis & Clark College. She holds an adjunct position at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine and is a member of the Oregon State Bar.

She has been interviewed by NBC News, CNN Crossfire, 60 Minutes, McNeil Lehrer News Hour, NPR, The Today Show, and Bill Moyers’ “On Death and Dying” among others. She has also testified before the US Congress on end-of-life issues.

She has been recognized with a national health Policy Fellowship, Boeringer Ingeheim Foundation, an American Jurisprudence Award for outstanding performance in the study of medical law and a National Health Lawyers Association scholarship for outstanding student achievement.

Ms. Coombs Lee has been a presenter at programs sponsored by American Bar Association, Older Women’s League, American Pain Society, Oregon State Bar, Americans for Better Care of The Dying, American Associations for the Advancement of Science, End of Life Concerns, and the American Pain Society. She spoke at the World Federation Right to Die conference in Zurich, Boston and Brussels.
Her audiences have included the Oregon Gerontological Association: the California Nurse Assembly & Education Conference. Her debate “Doctor Assisted Suicide: Compassionate Alternative or Murder” with James Bopp, Jr., was produced by “Justice Talking” a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center
for Public Radio.

Since Gonzales v. Oregon, the lawsuit defending the Oregon assisted-dying law, Ms. Coombs Lee has been interviewed by many of the nation’s newspapers. She has been quoted in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Recently, The Harvey M. Meyerhoff Lectures on Ethics at the End of Life hosted her presentation “Local Medical Practice and the Federal Threat” at Johns Hopkins University.

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