Liberals onside with public opinion on doctor-assisted dying legislation

The legislation tabled by the Liberal government on Thursday is unlikely to ignite much opposition, as the details of the bill align very closely with Canadians' views on the issue.

Few tough decisions for the Liberals as their legislation avoids controversial choices

Judicial vacancies on the rise as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould conducts review into judicial appointments process. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press )

The Liberal government sided with public opinion in the doctor-assisted dying legislation that was tabled on Thursday. Canadians were already widely on board with legalizing it, but the Liberals have also aligned themselves with the views of most Canadians on the details, too.

The government had to come up with the legislation due to the unanimous landmark ruling last year by the Supreme Court of Canada that struck down the ban on doctor-assisted dying. Politically, it was not dangerous territory, as at least two-thirds of Canadians have supported legalizing doctor-assisted death since the late 1970s.

But the devil was in the details on how it would be implemented, who would be eligible and what protections would be put into place to spare the vulnerable.

Polling conducted by the Angus Reid Institute (ARI) in March suggests that the Liberals did not take many controversial positions in putting together this legislation.

One of the most contentious issues was whether or not to consider psychological suffering alone as grounds for doctor-assisted dying. Canadians, however, were clearly on one side of that debate — the poll found that 78 per cent of respondents did not think that psychological suffering met the bar.

The legislation tabled Thursday included psychological suffering as grounds for doctor-assisted dying only if it was linked to an incurable illness, disease or disability, or an irreversible decline in capability.

Before a physician could assist in a patient's death, the legislation requires that the request be made in writing and be signed by two independent witnesses, in addition to being signed off by another physician or nurse practitioner. Here, too, the legislation aligns with public opinion.

The ARI poll found that 59 per cent agreed that two physicians should review and approve a request, rather than have it be put before a panel of experts.

Support for legalizing physician-assisted dying from various pollsters since 1968.

On wait times, Canadians were more divided. The legislation requires a waiting period of at least 15 days before the assistance is provided.

There was 12 per cent of Canadians in the poll who still felt that the assistance should not be provided at all and another 12 per cent who felt there should be no wait time whatsoever. But there was also 31 per cent who said that the wait times should be two weeks or less, while 44 per cent felt the wait time should be at least two weeks.

So while the government's 15-day waiting period may not be the preferred option of a majority of Canadians, it was the preferred option of the plurality of those polled.

Of note, however, is that only in Quebec did a plurality prefer the wait time be less than two weeks.

Room for further study and controversy

Justice Minister Judy Wilson-Raybould suggested that other amendments to the legislation could come in the future after the issue has been studied further. 

That did include a look at whether psychological suffering alone could meet the criteria for doctor-assisted dying, though the ARI poll suggests that a very small minority of Canadians would agree that it should.

Canadians were less unanimous, however, on the potential of extending the legislation to include so-called mature minors.

The poll found that a modest majority, or 58 per cent, supported extending it to teenagers with a terminal illness, while the other 42 per cent were opposed. Extending it to teenagers with psychological suffering, however, was opposed by 88 per cent of respondents.

That may prove too big of a step for the government to take as it studies this issue. But the polling suggests that Canadians are likely to feel that the Liberals have struck the right balance with Thursday's legislation.

The poll by the Angus Reid Institute was conducted between March 21 and 24, 2016, interviewing 1,517 adult Canadians who were members of an online panel. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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