Euthanasia is already a reality in Quebec hospitals, the president of the federation of Quebec medical specialists, told a National Assembly committee yesterday.
Doctors know when death is "imminent and inevitable," Gaétan Barrette explained.
But doctors are aware they can be charged with murder if they administer a "palliative sedative" before a patient is on his or her last breath.
Geoffrey Kelley, chairman of the committee, explained that MNAs will hear about 30 expert witnesses on "dying with dignity" to prepare a paper for a travelling public consultation this fall.
Barrette told the committee the issue of euthanasia could not be discussed in Quebec 50 years ago, comparing it with the evolution in thinking about abortion.
"Doctors are ready to debate euthanasia," Barrette said. And like abortion, he said, limits must be established. Not every patient will want euthanasia and not all doctors will agree to perform the procedure.
Barrette explained that a patient who is lucid consults with a doctor, friends and family members before requesting euthanasia.
For patients who are not lucid, a biological will can guide relatives who must decide.
The patient could have a terminal disease, like cancer. And patients at the "end of life" could be babies born with serious medical difficulties or seniors whose bodies are shutting down, one system after another.
"It's a cascade," Barrette said. "We can't invent it. We see it. There are safeguards."
Barrette said palliative care, using opiates to ease the pain, is also an important facet of end-of-life care.
"The choice of the patient is his choice," he said. "We want legislation in tune with the wishes of the public."
Polls indicate a high percentage of Quebecers favour euthanasia, including doctors.
But Barrette and Yves Lamontagne of the Quebec College of Physicians told the committee that doctors do not want to perform assisted suicides.
"We are not there to execute people," Lamontagne said.
Euthanasia, the decision to end life when death is imminent and inevitable, is "extremely complex and emotionally charged," Lamontagne added.
Yves Robert, secretary of the College, told the committee that Quebec is the only jurisdiction in Canada where patients can refuse medical treatment, which can lead to death.
"It doesn't exist elsewhere in Canada," Robert said. "We are ahead. Can we go farther?"