Alex Schadenberg, executive director of Canada’s Euthanasia Prevention Coalition Register file photo

Canadian attitudes skewed in favour of physician-assisted suicide

By 
  • August 9, 2012

Canadians and Britons are more open to physician-assisted suicide than Americans, a recent poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion has found.

Eighty per cent of Canadians and 77 per cent of the English said that doctors should be allowed to assist terminally ill, fully informed and competent patients to kill themselves. But only 56 per cent of Americans agreed.

The poll found 10 per cent of Canadians and nine per cent of Britons firmly opposed to physician-assisted suicide no matter who asks for it. Nearly one third — 29 per cent — of Americans said it should never be allowed. On the flip side, three-quarters of Canadians and Britons said physician-assisted suicide should always be allowed under specific circumstances, whereas only half of Americans thought so.

The problem with polls is that few respondents understand what’s meant by physician-assisted suicide, said Rita Marker, Patient Rights Council executive director.

“Those who are answering this poll could be viewing it as removing life support,” she said in an interview from Steubenville, Ohio. The Patient Rights Council is independent, but closely aligned with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Murky notions of palliative care and its availability fuel a fear-based response to polls on physician-assisted suicide in Canada, said Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

“Most Canadians support euthanasia or assisted suicide because they fear dying in pain or experiencing uncontrolled symptoms,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “Fear is a normal human response and it should be respected.”

The poll reveals nothing new about British attitudes to physician-assisted suicide, said Charles Wookey, assistant general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

“So far as the UK is concerned, in terms of opinion surveys this doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “What we’re seeing here to a degree is an instinctive, compassionate response from a society that prizes individual autonomy very highly.”

The Angus-Reid survey found 86 per cent of Canadians, 84 per cent of Britons and 69 per cent of Americans agree with the statement that “Legalizing doctor-assisted suicide would give people who are suffering an opportunity to ease their pain.”

People who believe laws against assisted suicide protect the vulnerable from social, economic and medical pressure to commit suicide face a major education challenge, said Wookey.

“It means there’s a very, very clear job for the Church to do, particularly in secular society,” he said.

But the Church can’t do it without allies, according to Wookey.

“What’s essential in this debate in this country is for it to be conducted in secular terms,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate fact that the religious argument or arguments based on the appeal to faith tend clearly not to persuade people who do not share the faith. They invite the response, ‘Don’t impose your faith-based views on the rest of us.’ ”

British bishops have teamed up with disability rights organizations and palliative care professionals to form an alliance called Care Not Killing — a purely secular platform to engage the public policy debate.

“When people are taken through the arguments and begin to understand first of all the quality of palliative care and what palliative care can provide, and secondly what the public policy consequences are for the most vulnerable members of society of a change in the law — what it might actually lead to — then very many people do actually change their minds,” said Wookey.

Getting people educated about the issue is essential because without a full debate economic issues will enter the equation, said Marker.

“We have to recognize the fact that all health programs are trying to save money,” she said. “By trying to save money the question is, will those health programs — if you say assisted suicide is a medical treatment — will they then do the right thing or the cheap thing?”

In Canada, availability and understanding of palliative care is key, said Schadenberg. He points to a 2010 Environics poll  that found 71 per cent of Canadians want governments to prioritize palliative care over euthanasia and assisted suicide. The 2011 Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care report Not To Be Forgotten is a start, he said.

“The real answer is to care for the needs of Canadians who are living with terminal conditions, chronic pain or disabilities,” said Schadenberg.

Angus-Reid’s online survey polled 1,003 Americans, 2,019 Britons and 1,003 Canadians between July 4 and 5. The margin of statistical error is plus or minus 2.2 per cent for Great Britain and plus or minus 3.1 per cent for Canada and the United States.

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