Quebec’s Premier Philippe Couillard.

Anti-euthanasia groups focus on court challenge

  • September 2, 2014

With the Supreme Court of Canada preparing to hear arguments on assisted suicide in October, Quebec's anti-euthanasia doctors have no time to win public support for their cause. All their energy is focused on persuading Supreme Court judges.

“If we don’t win at the Supreme Court there’s not much good in winning the public, because the game’s over then,” said Dr. Catherine Ferrier, president of the Physicians Alliance for Total Refusal of Euthanasia.

Canada’s top court will hear Carter v. Canada Oct. 15. The Attorney General of Canada is appealing a 2013 British Columbia Court of Appeal ruling striking down criminal code provisions against assisted suicide. The Physicians Alliance, the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition and the Christian Legal Fellowship have intervenor status opposing legalization. Pleading that laws prohibiting assisted suicide should change is the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die and the The Ad Hoc Coalition of People with Disabilities Who are Supportive of Physician-Assisted Dying.

Winning at the Supreme Court won’t be the end of the court battles over euthanasia. The Physicians Alliance is also challenging Quebec’s new law which seeks to legalize physician-assisted suicide by defining it as medical treatment.

But Ferrier is aware legal victories won’t last if public opinion remains in favour of euthanasia. A 2013 Environics poll found 71 per cent of Canadians in favour of assisted suicide — up from 64 per cent in 2000. Over the same period, Environics found the percentage of Canadians who disapprove of physician-assisted suicide had shrunk from 26 per cent to 19 per cent. A steady five-to-seven per cent said “it depends.”

“The right to die movement has been working on this for a very long time. Our group, the Physicians Alliance, has existed for two years. Vivre dans la Dignite (a Quebec anti-euthanasia group) has existed for four years,” said Ferrier. “Euthanasia hit the news in Quebec in 2009. We’ve been playing catch-up since then, because the stage was already set.”

Changing the public’s mind on the necessity of euthanasia isn’t going to be easy for a voluntary association of doctors with a small budget and no full-time staff, said Ferrier.

“It’s worked its way into the public consciousness. Can we undo that? Well, we’re certainly going to try. But the most urgent is the Supreme Court case,” she said. “We have to put a lot of energy into the juridical side, but if we win there are for sure two big fields of work (remaining). One is public opinion and the other is improving end-of-life care so people don’t feel they need it so much.”

While some recent polls have shown doctors evenly divided on the question, a consultation on the subject by the Canadian Medical Association found that 71.5 per cent of doctors who responded supported the CMA’s existing opposition to assisted suicide, as opposed to 25.6 per cent who want the CMA to change its position.

Ferrier worries the CMA’s opposition to doctors participating in assisted suicide is weakening. At its August annual convention the national doctors’ association put forward a new policy protecting the conscience rights of doctors who refuse to offer assisted suicide. The position also commits the CMA to defending the conscience rights of doctors who choose to offer lethal drug cocktails when and if it is legal.

“If the legislation were to change, then we would defend physicians on both sides of the issue," CMA executive director of ethics Dr. Jeff Blackmer told The Catholic Register.

Ferrier sees that as a weakening of medical ethics.

“(The CMA) also said it’s up to the government to decide (what’s legal), which I think was already an abdication of the profession’s responsibility,” said Ferrier.

A perception that doctors are unsure or divided on the ethics of prescribing lethal drugs also influences public opinion in favour of euthanasia. The fact that Quebec’s Premier Philippe Couillard is a doctor who did a quick about face on physician-assisted suicide once elected bolsters public perception that assisted suicide is a legitimate approach to difficult end-of-life decisions.

In terms of influencing public opinion, the Physicians Alliance has concentrated on secular and scientific arguments.

“There have been a lot of attempts by people in the media and on the other side to label us, to say ‘You’re just tools of the Catholic Church,’ ” Ferrier said. “We have been from the beginning saying we’re a non-religious group, we are a non-political group. We’re doing this for the protection of our patients — to make it a much more professional approach and human rights approach and avoid the language of the pro-life movement.”

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