Problems loom as Canada misses deadline for assisted death law

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

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

The topic is highly sensitive and prompted a political debate that dragged out 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, legal challenges are likely.

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

Doctors will be able to help patients die starting June 7, but in the absence of a federal law it is now up to Canada's 10 provinces to individually set their own guidelines. Philpott said this would produce a patchwork of differing rules.

"Doctors may have inadequate legal protection, and 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 set up a referral service for doctors seeking advice.

"We encourage patients and health care providers to seek further clarity about how the Supreme Court's decision applies to their particular circumstances," Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said in a statement.

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The Supreme Court last year said willing adults facing intolerable physical or psychological suffering from a severe and incurable medical condition had the right to a medically assisted death.

The Liberal government, though, chose to draft a narrow law and rejected proposals covering minors, the mentally ill and those who are not suffering from a terminal disease.

The bill is now before the Senate upper chamber, where several members plan to introduce amendments broadening the scope of the legislation. Once the Senate has finished, the draft will go back to the House of Commons lower chamber.

The Liberals will then have to decide whether to approve amendments they had previously rejected, and given that the House breaks for the summer this month, debate could be pushed back until later in the year.

Whatever the final law looks like, constitutional experts predict legal challenges from people who feel it contravenes the spirit of the Supreme Court's decision.