Euthanasia OK in certain circumstances, Quebec doctors say

By 
  • November 6, 2009
{mosimage}A position paper by the Quebec College of Physicians has raised significant ethical questions about the obligations of doctors by calling for amendments to the Criminal Code to permit doctors to kill some terminally ill patients.

In becoming Canada’s first regulatory body to openly support legalized euthanasia, the Quebec college has taken the controversial stand that in some situations ending a life should be regarded as a legitimate treatment option for doctors.

“We are saying death can be an appropriate type of care in certain circumstances,” Dr. Yves Robert said at a Nov. 3 press conference. Such circumstances would include cases in which death is imminent and inevitable.

Dr. Tim Lau, president of the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, said he was anticipating the Quebec report but was shocked by the final wording.
“To call the killing of your patient a treatment will turn medicine on its head,” Lau said.

Lau suggested the Quebec college is confusing deliberately killing a patient with the legal and ethical withdrawal of futile treatments and the use of sedatives and pain relievers.

“In some ways it’s nice to have them come out openly and say what they actually believe.”

The Quebec college announcement came a day after release of a poll showing that, although 61 per cent of respondents support legalized euthanasia, Canadians are concerned about abuse and would overwhelming prefer that the government invest in palliative and hospice care.

The Environics poll was conducted for Life Canada, a national umbrella organization for pro-life groups. It indicated that despite majority support for euthanasia that topped out at 75 per cent in Quebec, most respondents believe euthanasia laws could pose a threat to the elderly, sick and disabled.

By an almost four-to-one margin, respondents said the government priority should be investing in more and better palliative and hospice care rather than  legalizing euthanasia.

The poll, conducted Oct. 6-13,  indicates that many Canadians confuse the issue of allowing someone to die vs. actually killing a patient, said Life Canada president Dr. Delores Doherty. She also said a recent survey of Quebec physicians show they, too, are confused about the issue. Withdrawing treatment and allowing death by natural causes has become confused with intentionally killing a patient by euthanasia.

“When someone is dying their body closes down,” Doherty said, adding that medications to control pain, food and water will be rejected by the body. If medication is increased to control pain, it is not the pain medication that kills the patient but the underlying illness, she said.

The poll showed that 56 per cent of Canadians expressed some concern that legalized euthanasia could result in pressure on the elderly in order to save on health care costs, and seven in 10 expressed some concern about sick, disabled and elderly persons being euthanized without their consent. Forty-one per cent said they were “very concerned.”

The survey was released the same day Conservative MP Stephen Fletcher, writing in the National Post, said he would abstain in the upcoming vote on a private member’s bill to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. Bill C-384, introduced by Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde, comes up for its second and final hour of debate on Nov. 19 ahead of a second-reading vote on Nov. 25.

A quadriplegic from a 1996 car accident, Fletcher described Bill C-384 as flawed, although he supports the principle of euthanasia.

“However, for that choice to be genuinely free, and for society to have confidence in that choice, we must know that we are giving the severely injured and ill the support needed to prevent them from losing hope — through the health-care system, social workers, therapy, spiritual counselling, proper insurance coverage (including automobile and workers compensation) and the like,” Fletcher said.

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