June 6, 2016 / 4:07 PM / a year ago

Problems loom as Canada misses deadline for assisted death law

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government on Monday acknowledged it would miss a deadline to introduce a law allowing medically-assisted death and predicted many sick patients would have trouble finding doctors willing to help end their lives.

The Supreme Court last year overturned a ban on physician-assisted suicide and gave Ottawa until June 6 to introduce a law allowing the practice.

Debate on the sensitive topic dragged on for so long that the final version of the draft legislation is not ready. It could be months before a law is adopted and even then, legal challenges are likely.

“Unfortunately, despite tremendous effort, this bill is not yet in place,” Health Minister Jane Philpott said on Monday.

Doctors can to help patients die starting June 7, but in the absence of a federal law it is now up to Canada’s ten provinces to individually set their own guidelines. Philpott said this would produce a patchwork of differing rules.

“I expect that in these early days, many physicians will be extremely reluctant to provide assistance to patients wanting medical assistance in dying,” she told a health conference.

Ontario, Canada’s most-populous province, on Monday said it would create a referral service for doctors seeking advice.

The Supreme Court ruling covered willing adults facing intolerable physical or psychological suffering from a severe and incurable medical condition.

However the government drafted a narrow law and rejected amendments covering minors, the mentally ill and those not suffering from a terminal disease.

Critics, like Grace Pastine of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, say this condemns people with degenerative conditions like multiple sclerosis to unbearable suffering.

“(This) is a cynical, misinformed and unconstitutional piece of legislation,” she told reporters in Vancouver.

Legal expert Peter Hogg told a Senate committee in Ottawa that the bill clearly contravened the spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the bill was well-crafted and would defend the most vulnerable.

“We are ensuring that this big step ... is done the right way,” he told legislators.

The bill is now before the Senate upper chamber, where several members plan to introduce amendments to broaden the legislation.

It will then go back to the House of Commons, where the Liberals must decide whether to approve amendments they had previously rejected. Given that the House breaks for the summer this month, debate could be pushed back until later in the year.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Alan Crosby

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