Quebec Euthanasia Guidelines

Practice guide issued by Quebec health care profession regulators


Sean Murphy*

Quebec’s Act Respecting End of Life Care (ARELC) was passed in June, 2014 and comes into effect in December, 2015.  When enacted, the  law purported to legalize euthanasia in the province, but its actual legal effect was questionable because Canadian provinces do not have jurisdiction over criminal law.  Only the Canadian federal government can make laws governing homicide and suicide.

However, in February, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in the case of Carter vs. Canada. The Court struck down the criminal prohibition of homicide and assisted suicide to the extent that it prevents the provision of physician assisted suicide and physician administered euthanasia for a certain class of patients.  The Court specified that the law cannot prevent the procedures for competent adults who are suffering intolerably as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition, which cannot be relieved by other means acceptable to the patient.  The declaration of invalidity was suspended for one year to allow the government time to revise the law.

The federal government under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper took no action until mid-July, when it appointed a panel to study the issue and offer advice about legislative options.  The government was defeated in the federal election in October, and it remains unclear what direction the new Liberal government will take.

ARELC thus comes into force about two months before the Supreme Court ruling in Carter takes effect, while the criminal prohibition of euthanasia and assisted suicide is still in place.  However, the guidelines for euthanasia in ARELC are actually more restrictive than those proposed by the Supreme Court of Canada in Carter, so it seems doubtful that the federal government will challenge the Quebec law.

In August, 2015, the state regulators of the professions of medicine, pharmacy and nursing jointly issued an 88 page Medical Aid in Dying Practice Guide to direct the provision of euthanasia in Quebec.  The Guide appears to be available only in French, and is currently accessible only through a password protected portal on the Collège des médecins du Québec website, or by making an access to information request.  However, the Guide also states that it can be reproduced as long as the source is acknowledged.

What follows is a partial machine assisted English translation of the Guide set opposite the original French text.  For ease of reference, each translated segment is identified by a translation number (T#).  Only those parts of the Guide that appear to have some relevance to freedom of conscience are reproduced here.

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Redefining the Practice of Medicine- Euthanasia in Quebec, Part 9: Codes of Ethics and Killing


Refusing to participate, even indirectly, in conduct believed to involve serious ethical violations or wrongdoing is the response expected of physicians by professional bodies and regulators.  It is not clear that Quebec legislators or professional regulators understand this.

A principal contributor to this lack of awareness – if not actually the source of it – is the Code of Ethics of the Collège des médecins, because it requires that physicians who are unwilling to provide a service for reasons of conscience help the patient obtain the service elsehere. The President of the Collège was pleased that law will allow physicians to shift responsibilty for finding someone willing to kill a patient to a health system administrator, avoiding an anticipated problem caused by the requirement for referral in the Code of Ethics.  However, the law does not displace the demand for referral in the Code, and can be interpreted to support it.

The Collège des médecins Code of Ethics demand for referral conflicts with the generally accepted view of culpable indirect participation.  Despite this, it continues to be used as a paradigm by other  professions, notably pharmacy.  It is thus not surprising that the College of Pharmacists also anticipates difficulty over the issue of referral.  Like the Collège des médecins, the College of Pharmacists would like to avoid these problems by allowing an objecting pharmacist to shift responsibility for obtaining lethal drugs to a health systems administrator.

Nurses cannot be delegated the task of killing a patient, it is not unreasonable to believe that nurses may be asked to participate in euthanasia in other ways. Thus, there remain concerns about indirect but morally significant participation in killing.  Their Code of Ethics imposes a duty to ensure both continuity of care and “treatment,” which is to include euthanasia.  However, under ARELC, an objecting nurse is required to ensure only continuity of care.  This should not be interpreted to require nurses to participate in euthanasia, though they may be pressured to do so.

As a general rule, it fundamentally unjust and offensive to human dignity to require people to support, facilitate or participate in what they perceive to be wrongful acts; the more serious the wrongdoing, the graver the injustice and offence.  It was a serious error to include this a requirement in code of ethics for Quebec physicians and pharmacists. The error became intuitively obvious to the Collège des médecins and College of Pharmacists when the subject shifted from facilitating access to birth control to facilitating the killing of patients.

A policy of mandatory referral of the kind found in the Code of Ethics of the Collège des médecins  is not only erroneous, but dangerous.  It establishes the priniciple that people can be compelled to do what they believe to be wrong – even gravely wrong – and punish them if they refuse.  It purports to entrench  a ‘duty to do what is wrong’ in medical practice, including a duty to kill or facilitate the killing of patients. To hold that the state or a profession can compel someone to commit or even to facilitate what he sees as murder is extraordinary.

Quebec’s medical establishment can correct the error by removing the mandatory referral provisions of their codes of ethics that nullify freedom of conscience.  This would prevent objecting physicians and pharmacists from being cited for professional misconduct for refusing to facilitate euthanasia or disciplined for refusing to facilitate other procedures to which they object for reasons of conscience, including contraception and abortion.  This would almost certainly antagonize consumers who have been conditioned to expect health care workers to set aside moral convictions.

It remains to be seen whether the Quebec medical establishment will maintain the erroneous provisions, preferring to force objecting health care workers to become parties to homicide rather than risk occasionally inconveniencing people, such as the young Ontario woman and her supporters who were outraged because she had to drive around the block to obtain The Pill. [Full Text]