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Urgency to pass Quebec's right-to-die bill as provincial election looms

QUEBEC - Quebec's landmark right-to-die bill is on shaky ground with rumblings of a provincial election around the corner.

The Parti Quebecois government was hoping to fast-track a vote on Thursday to have the bill passed into law as the legislature breaks for two weeks.

But quick passage of the long-awaited bill didn't come as the Opposition Liberals want to wait until next month to continue the debate, insisting its members want more time to speak.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said he has already decided to vote in favour of the bill, but he will not prevent members of his team from making their positions clear on such an important topic, especially if they decide to vote against. He denied the act was "petty politics."

"Petty politics is to disregard a political party's decision to hold a conscience vote on such an important topic and to allow its members to express themselves," Couillard told a news conference.

There is widespread speculation the PQ will call an election in the coming weeks that would set a provincial vote for April.

The bill, four years in the making, could die on the order paper if it is not passed before the dissolution of the legislature, which is expected after the break.

Negotiations intensified on Thursday. The government said it had worked out a deal with the Coalition for Quebec's Future, the third-place party, which was ready to vote on Thursday.

But the Liberals balked. Given the bill will be subject to a rare free vote, the Liberals don't want to limit the speaking time for its members, whatever the electoral agenda of the PQ government may be.

About 35 Liberal members want a chance to speak on Bill 52, which has all-party support and has passed numerous hurdles, including two years worth of public hearings.

Couillard said if the bill did not pass, he'd revive it as-is if the Liberals came to power.

Veronique Hivon, Quebec's social services minister who is spearheading the bill, said she was "deeply, deeply disappointed and completely puzzled," by the Liberals' refusal to make concessions. But she remained confident the bill would pass soon.

PQ House Leader Stephane Bedard lashed out at Couillard, saying the Liberal leader was failing to live up to his responsibilities.

"I think he hopes to not have to vote on this bill," Bedard fumed during a news conference. "The problem isn't the time to speak, it's the vote and the Liberal has decided the legislature won't speak about this important piece of legislation."

The legislation was tabled last summer, only after a panel of experts concluded that provinces have the legal jurisdiction to legislate in matters of health.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in Canada under the Criminal Code. The bill refers to medically assisted death with a doctor administering medication to a terminally ill patient if they meet a host of requirements, including filling out consent form and the approval of two doctors.

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