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Supreme Court holds assisted dying hearing

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OTTAWA—The Supreme Court of Canada held an oral hearing today as it mulls whether to grant the federal government’s request for a six-month extension in response to its historic ruling on doctor-assisted death.

The federal government argues a comprehensive response to the top court’s judgment requires extensive work by Parliament and provincial legislatures that cannot reasonably be completed by February.

The Liberals established a special Commons-Senate committee last month to explore the issue of doctor-assisted death in hopes of drafting a new law ahead of its new proposed deadline in August.

The committee is supposed to report back with legislative recommendations by Feb. 26, according to the motion that sparked its creation, though MPs have not yet been assigned to it.

As it stands now, Canada’s Criminal Code provisions prohibiting doctor-assisted death will cease to exist next month after they were deemed unconstitutional by the court last winter.

In its ruling, the court recognized the right of consenting adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to end their lives with a physician’s help.

It also suspended its decision for one year to allow Parliament and provincial legislatures to respond—should they choose—by ushering in legislation consistent with constitutional limits it set out.

The federal government, in its submissions to the court, has stressed the need for more time.

“This court recognized that the task facing legislators, of weighing and balancing many competing interests, was a difficult one,” the government said.

“Parliament needs access to the best information available,” it added.

The courts only have extended periods of suspensions in a few cases and never in one as high profile as this case, according to University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach.

“This case may set an important precedent about not only the extension of suspended declarations but also the purposes of this remedy,” Roach noted.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and individuals who spearheaded the case argue an extension would be a setback for Canadians enduring unbearable pain.

“For people who are involved in our case and for many other Canadians . . . who have been waiting and waiting and waiting, it is going to be mean an extension of that suffering,” said Josh Paterson, the association’s executive director.

“It essentially means their constitutional rights will continue to be violated and for longer than they’ve already had to wait,” he argued.

This case is fundamentally about human dignity and choice, Paterson added.

The association said if more time is granted to the government, there should be a built-in mechanism to allow individuals to ask a court to have their right to a physician-assisted death provided to them.

“If there is an extension, the court should grant permission for people who qualify and are in need of this treatment now,” Paterson said.

There is precedent for this, Paterson noted, highlighting that the B.C. Supreme Court made accommodations when it also suspended its judgment on the case.

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