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Quebec suspends plan to make assisted dying open to people with mental illness

The Quebec government has backed away from its plan to allow medically assisted death to people until it holds more extensive consultations on the controversial issue.

Health Minister Danielle McCann announced last week that the government would comply with a Quebec Superior Court decision that struck down the “end-of-life” requirement in Quebec’s law on medical assistance in dying (MAID).

The same judgment invalidated the “reasonably foreseeable natural death” requirement of the federal Criminal Code.

McCann’s announcement meant that as of March 12, medically assisted death would be accessible in Quebec to people with mental illnesses, as well as others with incurable but not terminal symptoms.

That sparked concern the government was pushing ahead with a major change without thinking through the consequences.

On Monday, McCann said she has decided to take “a pause” on allowing assisted dying to people with mental health problems.

“I’m very sensitive to what has come out in the last few days,” she told reporters.

“We need to have a social consensus around this question.”

Nicole Gladu, left, and Jean Truchon were behind a Quebec Superior Court challenge that declared parts of both the federal and provincial laws on medically assisted dying unconstitutional because they’re too restrictive. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

McCann said those with neurodegenerative problems, but without a foreseeable death, will still be eligible for assisted death starting March 12, in compliance with the court ruling.

Those include Nicole Gladu and Jean Truchon, two Montrealers with incurable degenerative diseases who successfully challenged the province’s law. 

McCann said a public consultation will take place next month and continue “as long it takes.” McCann organized a one-day forum Monday with provincial stakeholders ahead of the consultations.

“We need to continue to consult the population, to consult the experts, to have a dialogue with also people who have mental health problems,” she said. 

First priority should be care — doctors

Dr. Yves Robert, secretary of Quebec’s Collège des médecins, the professional order for the province’s physicians, welcomed the go-slow approach.

Robert said the priority should be to make sure that patients with mental illness receive appropriate care. He said the question is complicated and requires further consideration.

“One of the reasons for that is that health problems include, as a symptomatic issue, the will to die, so it is often difficult to make the distinction between a clear and informed consent to MAID and a symptom of mental health,” he said.

The province has to be careful not to send the message that assisted dying could be a common treatment for those suffering from mental illness, Robert said.

“Clearly, it is not a high number of persons that would qualify,” he said.

“It’s probably those who do not respond to those properly to all the treatments available.” 

Ottawa also revising law

The federal government is also working to comply with the Quebec Superior Court ruling, even though it only applies to Quebec.

Ottawa is seeking views through an online questionnaire, closing Jan. 27, on how the law should be changed.

Federal cabinet ministers are, as well, holding in-person discussions with experts across the country.

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