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Most Canadians support assisted suicide. Why politicians don’t

Conservative MP Steven Fletcher speaks with the media as he leaves caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ont., Wednesday March 26, 2014.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It's not easy to get political parties of any stripe to take a stand on assisted suicide.

When Manitoba MP Steven Fletcher introduced two private member's bills last week that would combine to give Canadians with incurable and intolerable diseases or disabilities more choice about end-of-life decisions, his own Conservative party made it clear he was on his own.

It can't be easy to oppose Mr. Fletcher on this issue. As someone who has been a quadriplegic since 1996, and who has given serious thought to whether his own life was worth living, he speaks from a vantage point that most of us, thankfully, will never share.

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Justice Minister Peter MacKay has acknowledged Mr. Fletcher's rare perspective but says assisted suicide is not a debate the Conservative government wants to reopen.

And the Conservatives are not alone.

The rank and file of the federal Liberal party voted in favour of decriminalizing medically assisted suicide at a policy convention in February. But the Liberals in Ottawa have not adopted the resolution as party policy.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says he first wants to find out what the Supreme Court has to say about it – a ruling is expected later this year.

The New Democrats also are neither for nor against.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will say only that any change in the law must be done in consultation with the provinces and experts from social, medical and criminal fields. He has not come down on one side of the argument or the other, he says, because there are just too many variables including what constitutes medical intervention and in which cases would it be acceptable.

But while politicians stay out of the debate, large numbers of Canadians have made up their minds.

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According to the Environics Institute for Survey Research, support for euthanasia has changed little over 20 years and last fall 71 per cent of respondents said they favour allowing terminally ill or severely disable people to end their lives.

Derek Leebosh, the vice-president of public affairs for the research company, says support for legalized assisted suicide runs across party lines.

Environics polling suggests that 80 per cent of NDP supporters agree that medically assisted suicides should be legal. It drops to 71 per cent among Liberal supporters. Then it drops again to 60 per cent for Conservative supporters, with 31 per cent of them saying they disapprove and the remainder sitting on the fence.

But that means, even among Conservative supporters, twice as many people believe that euthanasia has a place in Canadian society.

So why are the federal political leaders so reticent to go with the majority?

Mr. Leebosh says that, for the Conservatives, it could create problems among their own base. "There is a third of people who are opposed and that may be a larger number of the people who are militants and donors and that kind of thing."

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For the other parties "it seems like a win-win," he said. But "it's one thing to have a polling result to say the public approves of euthanasia. It's a very different thing to get from there to actually bringing in legislation around how to regulate it and what should be the process."

In other words, it's politically difficult.

Sharon Carstairs is a former senator who has given much thought to the issue of assisted suicide and she would prefer the political focus was turned to palliative care, rather than ending lives.

Ms. Carstairs said she believes there are many people who don't know what medically assisted suicide actually means.

"Some people think it's being disconnected from a respirator, other people think it's a do-not-resuscitate order," she said. So, even when politicians see surveys that suggest wide support for its legalization, she said, "they aren't sure what Canadians really think about the specific act of one person taking another person's life."

Wanda Morris, the executive of Dying With Dignity Canada, disagrees. Ms. Morris say she thinks most Canadians understand assisted suicide. She says politicians are merely worried about a small but very vocal opposition.

But Ms. Morris says successful political campaigns in the United States have been run on the promise to allow the procedure. The perception that support of medically-assisted deaths are a vote-loser, she said, "is so 20 years ago."

Gloria Galloway is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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