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Canadian lawmakers divided on assisted suicide (+video)

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Adrian Wyld /The Canadian Press/AP

(Read caption) Canada's Health Minister Jane Philpott (r.) speaks as Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould listens at a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday. Canada has introduced a new assisted suicide law that will only apply to Canadians and residents.

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Canada could soon legalize physician-assisted suicides for patients "enduring physical or psychological suffering," becoming one of the few countries to legalize some form the practice.

The proposed legislation will only apply to Canadian citizens and residents that are eligible to participate in the national health care system, meaning that tourists and other visitors who may wish to seek the assistance in Canada won't be able to. 

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"It's a deeply personal issue that affects all of us and our families and all of us individually as we approach the end of our lives," said Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as Reuters reported. "The plan we have put forward is one that respects Canadians' choices while putting in place the kinds of safeguards needed."

Under the proposed legislation, patients with "serious and incurable illness" would have to write a formal request or have a designated person write one for them. The request would need an approval from two independent physicians, and it would have a 15-day waiting period, during which the patient may withdraw the request. Physicians whose beliefs don't align with the law may refuse to provide the service, but they must refer patients to another physician.

The practice had been illegal in Canada, carrying a sentence of up to 14 years in prison, as The Washington Post reported. The county's Supreme Court established last year that Canadians have a constitutional right to receive physician-assisted suicide under certain circumstances, dealing a defeat to the Conservative government that was in power at the time. 

The legislation will be put to vote in June and is expected to pass as the Liberal government, which sponsored it, holds a majority of seats in Parliament. It remains a controversial bill, however, even though the vast majority of Canadians are in favor of assisted suicide, according to a 2014 Ipsos Reid poll. Some 84 percent of Canadians say they agree that doctors should be able to assist terminally ill patients to end their lives if certain conditions are met.

Although designed to discourage "suicide tourism" in Canada, some proponents of the law say the proposal is too restrictive, contending that it excludes people who may be suffering from early dementia as well as some minors who may be capable of making their own decisions.

"It's disappointing because if the government doesn't amend the legislation, when it comes into law, then we may see a number of court challenges from very sick and dying people to establish their charter right," Shanaaz Gokool, chief executive officer of Dying With Dignity Canada, told The Wall Street Journal.

But critics of the law who have long opposed any form of assisted suicide by often citing religious beliefs continue to push against the measure.

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"It changes our approach to human life, it changes our approach to human society," Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto, told The New York Times in an interview Thursday after the new bill was introduced.  

If approved, the new law will add Canada to a list of countries that allow some form of physician-assisted suicide, including Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, and the Netherlands. Physician-assisted suicide in the United States is legal in the states of California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.