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According to a recent Léger Marketing survey, an extraordinarily high proportion of Quebeckers – 71 per cent – favour decriminalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide. This, in a province that's been the major bastion of Catholicism in North America for so many decades. The question is so complex, and so deeply fraught with moral issues and potential abuses, that it's difficult to understand why so many people can opt for a radical solution without being, at least, a little anxious about the consequences of their choice.

Maybe the obvious bias contained in the question can explain the high rate of approval. "Do you believe decriminalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide is the right way to help people die with dignity?" asked the pollster, thereby associating euthanasia and assisted suicide with the concept of "dignity."

Aren’t doctors supposed to do everything to protect life?

Perhaps many respondents confused euthanasia with the interruption of the aggressive and useless paraphernalia used to keep terminally ill patients artificially alive. Naturally, most people are against this, although things can get quite murky. Does a doctor perform some form of "soft euthanasia" when he prescribes increasingly heavier doses of morphine to ease a patient's intolerable pain, knowing full well that the medication may hasten death? Still, the definition of euthanasia is clear: It's an act whose single goal is to initiate death, not alleviate suffering.

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There's a strong push in Quebec for decriminalizing euthanasia. The Federation of Medical Specialists has been campaigning for the past year in favour of a law that would establish clear guidelines for euthanasia – a practice, said its president, Gaétan Barrette, that goes on unacknowledged all the time in hospitals. Last year, Bloc Québécois MP Francine Lalonde introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons that would allow, under certain circumstances, seriously ill people to decide when to end their lives.

Even though this is a federal matter (it's under the Criminal Code), the Quebec government, with an eye on public opinion polls, wants to get involved, too, if only to apply pressure on Ottawa. The government set up a consultative commission that will hold hearings on euthanasia, palliative care and so on in 11 cities this fall.

The proponents of euthanasia are on a roll. Still, one can't help feeling a certain malaise when the main proponent of euthanasia is a physicians' association. Aren't doctors supposed to do everything to protect life? Would it be that some of them are exasperated to see so many terminally ill patients fighting for their miserable life when there's a shortage of intensive care beds? This is not a comfortable thought.

Hugh Anderson, a Montreal Gazette journalist who wrote a seniors' column until his recent death from cancer, was adamantly against the idea of legalizing euthanasia, because he thought that none of the safeguards that could be part of a law would prevent abuse. The slippery slope can be quite abrupt, indeed.

When the Netherlands first codified euthanasia 30 years ago (it was legalized in 2002), medically assisted suicide was allowed only for competent adults who were terminally ill. "Then," wrote Mr. Anderson, "it was extended to competent adults with incurable illnesses or disabilities, although not terminally ill. Then it was extended to competent adults who were depressed but otherwise not physically ill. Then it was extended to incompetent adult patients like Alzheimer's sufferers, on the basis that they would have asked for death if they were competent. And now it is legal for doctors in Holland to kill infants, if parents agree, if they believe their patients' suffering is intolerable or incurable."

Maybe Canada would follow a different path. But what's beyond doubt is that legalizing assisted suicide would apply terrible pressures on severely disabled or terminally ill people who don't want to die even though their lives might seem worthless in the eyes of others. The fact is that most people, whatever their condition, don't want to die. Since Oregon legalized medically assisted suicide in 1997, about 40 people a year, on average, asked for the procedure – obviously a tiny fraction of terminally ill or severely disabled people. Who, indeed, can judge the value of one's life?

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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