Some form of physician-assisted dying is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland and in a handful of US states. Now, Canada has taken a significant step towards allowing dying people to seek medical help to end their lives after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government unveiled a bill Thursday to legalize assisted suicide.
Some Canadians have expressed reservations based on deeply held religious beliefs but recent polling shows an overwhelming majority - 85% - support the right to die. "The plan we put forward is one that respects Canadians' choices while putting into place the kinds of safeguards needed," said Trudeau.
‘Canada has taken a significant step towards allowing dying people to seek medical help to end their lives.’
The proposed law would not compel doctors or nurses to provide help to die and the option would not be available to foreigners. The proposed amendment to the Criminal Code comes one year after Canada's Supreme Court struck down a prohibition against doctor-assisted suicide.
The government was given until June 6 - including an extension - to draft new legislation that would permit consenting adults with serious health problems to end their suffering. However, the protocols are much less comprehensive than proposals put forward by a parliamentary special committee formed to study the hugely controversial issue.
"Personally, I believe we need to provide the most comfort to people when they are nearing the end of their lives, whatever form that takes," Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told a press conference.
"The proposed legislation would allow competent adult patients who are suffering intolerably from serious medical conditions to apply for a peaceful death instead of prolonged, frightening, painful or undignified deaths that they may otherwise face."
The Supreme Court's ruling declaring unconstitutional the denial of an assisted death option reversed its own 1993 decision. At that time, the court expressed concern about protecting vulnerable persons, but in its February 2015 ruling pointed to changed Canadian social values.
"We know that some groups will say that we have not gone far enough with this legislation and we know that some groups will say we have gone too far," Health Minister Jane Philpott said. "To me this underscores just how personal and sensitive an issue like this is for Canadians. As minister of health I believe this is the right approach for Canada."
The government said it would also boost funding for palliative care and further study the parliamentary special committee's other recommendations.
Among those 21 recommendations was a proposal urging that physician-assisted suicide be available to competent minors and people with mental illness. A person diagnosed with a serious health problem could also make arrangements in advance to die, in situations where dementia or other illness could prevent them from making the decision later, the panel suggested.
Opposition Conservatives on the committee challenged the recommendations, saying they went far beyond what the court had ordered. But the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association - a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case - said the government's bill falls short.
"It leaves out entire categories of suffering Canadians who should have a right to choose a safe and dignified assisted death," the group said in a statement.
It remains unclear whether the draft legislation in its current form will pass before the court's June deadline. After much back and forth, political parties have said members of parliament will be free to vote their conscience for or against the bill.