Redefining the practice of medicine – Part 1

Winks and nods and euthanasia in Quebec

Re:  Bill 52: An Act respecting end-of-life care (June, 2013)

Sean Murphy*

Part 1: Overview


An Act respecting end-of-life care (Bill 52) is intended to permit physicians, in defined circumstances, to kill their patients as part of the redefined practice of medicine. However, the procedure cannot become part of medical practice in Quebec unless the medical profession itself (broadly speaking) formally accepts it as a form of health care.

The strategy of the Quebec government includes three key elements:

a) A statute that authorizes and allows the regulation of “medical aid in dying” (MAD) but does not define the term, so as to avoid conflict with the criminal law and constitutional challenges to the law;

b) Compliant medical regulators, professionals and health care authorities who are expected to define MAD to include euthanasia, thus establishing it as a legitimate aspect of health care;

c) Refusal to prosecute physicians who kill patients in accordance with MAD guidelines, thus circumventing the criminal prohibition of euthanasia.

While the federal government could, in theory, appoint and pay lawyers to act as prosecutors to enforce the criminal law, this would be especially contentious in Quebec and would involve political and practical problems. If Bill 52 passes, it seems unlikely that Quebec physicians who provide euthanasia under MAD guidelines will be prosecuted. The province formerly refused to enforce Canada’s criminal law on abortion for over twenty years, so a policy of refusing to prosecute physicians providing euthanasia could have similar staying power.

Though Bill 52 does not actually require or authorize the killing of patients, from a practical perspective, the text of the statute is a “mere technicality.” Nonetheless, it is not a mere technicality that the medical establishment and not the statute will have directed that patients can be killed in order to relieve their symptoms.

On the contrary: it is profoundly significant. Having formally approved of euthanasia, the medical establishment (meaning all of those who collaborate in drawing up MAD guidelines and protocols) will be at particular pains to defend and enforce the decision. In the end, freedom of conscience for Quebec health care workers who object to euthanasia may come to mean nothing more than the freedom to find another job, or the freedom to leave the province.  [Full commentary]

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