The Ontario government is holding 13 town-hall style discussions across the province Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Opponents of assisted killing make themselves heard

  • January 15, 2016

Widespread opposition to doctor-assisted suicide is beginning to reshape consultations on how Ontario should regulate the practice in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision to decriminalize voluntary euthanasia in some circumstances.

Halfway through a series of 13 town-hall style discussions in 11 cities, designers of the consultation have had to reformat their questions to accommodate those who directly and absolutely reject physician-assisted suicide.

In early sessions, people attending consultation meetings were asked to rate their likeliness to ask for physician-assisted suicide from “very likely” to “very unlikely.” Audience members quickly objected to the absence of an option for an absolute rejection of the very concept.

“We’ve since fixed that,” Ipsos Public Affairs senior vice president Brad Griffin told The Catholic Register. Ipsos has been hired by the province to run the consultations and Griffin has designed the questionnaires and consultation format.

By the time the province-wide tour reached Toronto Jan. 11, Griffin had added an option for audience members to express complete opposition to physician-assisted death.

“We just thought ‘very unlikely’ would cover someone very unlikely to do it,” Griffin said. “But we did realize we needed that more absolute for-or-against stance. So we fixed that.”

Before the fix, opponents to voluntary euthanasia at the Jan. 6 Ottawa consultation were distressed by the consultation design.

“This setup is rather disconcerting,” said Campaign Life Coalition Ottawa lobbyist Johanne Brownrigg. “I don’t understand the point of having a round table where people will be addressing each other when it’s in fact a policy that is being handed down by the government and we should be addressing the government.”

About 150 people, almost evenly divided between opponents and supporters of assisted suicide, packed the Sheraton Ottawa hotel Jan. 6.

“This is not what I was expecting,” said Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Julia Beasley. “It looks more like we’re going to be talking amongst ourselves.”

Though the questionnaires had shifted for a group of almost 300 at Toronto’s Chelsea Hotel, community health care nurse Shirley Christo still felt the process too easily assumed a pro-euthanasia outcome.

The role of the consultation isn’t to refight the Supreme Court case, said Griffin.

“It’s an open, public consultation where we essentially consult with the public on their views,” he said. “The only real information the government provides is a presentation up front, about 10 slides long, just giving the status of the situation… It’s a bit of an ever-changing item.”

The vote breakdown in the meetings is not meant as a scientific measure of public opinion, but rather a way to open up discussion, Griffin said. It’s the content of the debate among consultation participants rather than vote results that will inform Ipsos’ final report.

Griffin’s initial, internal report to the provincial government is expected two-to-three weeks after the last public meeting in Windsor, Ont. Jan. 23. The final version of the report will probably be made public two weeks after that, well after the Feb. 6 deadline which the Supreme Court gave to federal legislators to have new regulations in place.

Unless the court grants Parliament a six month extension, physician assisted suicide will become legal on Feb. 6 with or without either federal or provincial regulation in place — leaving the practice to the judgment of individual doctors and provincial colleges of physicians and surgeons.

“Ontario supports the federal government’s request to the Supreme Court of Canada for a six-month extension of the Carter v. Canada decision,” Ontario Ministry of Health spokesman Mark Nesbitt wrote in an email. “Whether or not there is an extension granted by the Supreme Court of Canada, Ontario will ensure appropriate measures are in place for Feb. 6.”

The public consultations are only one factor the province is considering as it shapes policy for how the practice of physician assisted suicide will be regulated, Nesbitt said. Also heavily weighted are the positions of such organizations as the Provincial-Territorial Expert Advisory Group on Physician Assisted Dying, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), the Canadian Medical Association and other groups.

The CPSO position will allow doctors to refuse to perform physician-assisted suicide procedures but would force them to refer to an “available and non-objecting physician.” The CMA would get around forcing doctors to refer by setting up centralized agencies for all end-of-life options from hospice care to home palliative care and assisted suicide. Patients would refer themselves to the provincial agency.

Ontario’s public consultations have remained deeply divided between advocates and opponents of physician assisted death, but Christo saw movement on the issue of who should administer lethal doses of drugs at the session in Toronto.

Pharmacists, nurses and others were mentioned as possible alternatives to doctors administering death-inducing drugs, Christo said.

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