Canadians want restrictions on doctor-assisted dying, poll suggests

Published in the Globe and Mail on April 7, 2016. Click here to read the article on their site.

A majority of Canadians do not want minors or people with mental illnesses and psychiatric conditions to be given access to doctor-assisted dying, a new Nanos Research/Globe and Mail poll has found.

The poll suggests Canadians would prefer that the federal government follow a restrictive path as it decides which patients have the right to end their suffering in a medical setting. While there is no doubt that doctor-assisted dying will become legal, there is a continuing debate about exactly who will have access, and under which conditions.

The poll of 1,000 adult Canadians found an overall disagreement with the idea of giving access to doctor-assisted dying to people suffering from mental illness or psychiatric conditions. The proposal was opposed by 51.8 per cent of respondents, while 42.4 per cent of respondents agreed with it.

The opposition was even greater to granting access to assisted dying to 16- and 17-year-olds. The proposal was opposed by 58.8 per cent of respondents, while it was supported by 36.2 per cent of respondents.

Both ideas were promoted by a recent parliamentary committee into the matter, which will influence the government’s coming legislation.

“Our government is committed to developing an approach that strikes the best balance among a range of interests, including personal autonomy, access to health-care services, and the protection of vulnerable persons,” said Joanne Ghiz, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

The government’s proposal will be tabled in “coming weeks,” she said, adding “there are many elements that need to be considered as we work to achieve the best possible solution for Canada on this highly sensitive and complex issue.”

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Criminal Code ban on doctor-assisted death in February, 2015, and suspended the ruling’s effect for one year. The Trudeau government asked for an extension after last year’s election, and must now bring in a law by June 6.

In February, a committee of MPs and senators recommended to provide assisted dying to Canadians suffering from both terminal and non-terminal medical conditions that cause enduring and intolerable suffering.

More controversially, the committee opened the door to assisted dying for youth under 18, calling on the government to address the issue of “mature minors” within three years of the initial law. The committee added that patients with mental illnesses or psychiatric conditions should not be excluded from eligibility as long as they are competent and meet the other criteria set out in law.

The Conservative MPs on the committee argued the proposals went too far at the time, and now feel vindicated by the poll’s findings.

Conservative MP Gérard Deltell said his group followed the example of Quebec where the government, after six years of consultations and studies, opted to restrict the right to doctor-assisted dying to consenting adults.

“The issues of minors and people with mental illnesses raise major problems,” Mr. Deltell said in an interview. “At what point does someone suffering from a mental illness offer his or her full and complete consent? It’s impossible. … Same thing for minors.”

Still, committee chair and Liberal MP Robert Oliphant said the proposals included “huge safeguards” to prevent any abuse against vulnerable persons who do not want to die. He added that on minors and people with psychological issues, the committee wanted to avoid setting arbitrary criteria and decided to leave clear powers in the hands of doctors.

“Will two physicians confirm competency, that the person has capacity, and that the illness is irremediable and grievous, and that the suffering is intolerable to the individual?” Mr. Oliphant said in an interview. “We felt that was the appropriate way to go.”

The poll also found that 75 per cent of Canadians agreed that doctors “should be able to opt out of offering assisted dying,” compared with 21 per cent who disagreed.

The Nanos Research random survey, conducted by telephone and online between March 31 and April 4, offers a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.