Nuanced opinion on doctor-assisted death means government should tread lightly

Nuanced opinion on doctor-assisted death means government should tread lightly

By Shachi Kurl

January 15, 2016 – On the subject of doctor-assisted death in Canada, the federal government now finds itself in a somewhat similar position as some proponents: running out of time. And while for proponents, the matter is literally about life and death, government’s task ahead is also heavy. Now, with an extra four months granted by the Supreme Court to draft new legislation, Ottawa has a minefield to navigate as it consults with the provinces, territories, and Canadians themselves. On the latter front, it’s not a consensus voice government will hear.

Canadian opinion on the question of whether physicians should be allowed, by law, to help end the lives of people who no longer wish to live is intricately nuanced. While the standard “nutgraf” of reportage on this file tends to simply reflect that the majority of Canadians support doctor-assisted suicide, a dive beneath the surface shows people in this country are divided on the underlying questions government is going to have to sort out: exactly who should be allowed to end their own lives? Under what circumstances? By which means?

Indeed, our most recent Angus Reid Institute poll once again underscores this complexity: asked about the moral acceptability of (among many other things) doctor-assisted suicide, just over half of Canadians see it as “always or usually acceptable” (55%):

Angus Reid poll of Morality in Canada

But of that group, just one-in-five are of the mind that is it “always” morally okay (22%) while closer to one-third say “usually”. This is an important distinction, because government – although it does not necessarily deal in the realm of morality – will want to propose legislation the public finds palatable.

And what of those specific circumstances? In December 2014, with the issue before the Supreme Court of Canada, the Angus Reid Institute polled Canadians about whether doctor-assisted suicide should be allowed in ten unique scenarios. The graph below illustrates their response:


Notably, disapproval – or at least uneasiness – with physician-assisted suicide was most pronounced in that December 2014 study among Canadians belonging to an evangelical Protestant denomination: fully 63 per cent of Evangelicals who regularly attended church at the time expressed disapproval compared to the 18 per cent recorded among the whole population.

Indeed, this week’s survey on morality shows those with the hardest-line mindset when it comes to moral right and wrong, the “Traditional Absolutists” also identify strongly with this faith group.

Little wonder then, why the former Conservative government under Stephen Harper appeared to be in no hurry to tackle this legislation head-on last year, knowing a key part of its own base (practicing Christians of all stripes expressed a strong preference for the CPC in ARI’s pre-election surveys) had major concerns.

While it doesn’t face the same political pressures Harper did, the Trudeau government must still demonstrate a grasp of how complex the issue is, and how the individual moral codes of Canadians impact their thinking. I sincerely wish anyone working on this file the best of luck, wisdom, and forbearance.

Image Credit: Tim Samoff/Flickr