Inside Politics

Euthanasia, the people's choice

There simply isn't any other issue on which the public and the politicians are so out of sync with each other.

The discrepancy was picked up by Vote Compass, an online survey of national issues on during the recent election campaign, according to director of analytics Peter Loewen. "The Vote Compass data help us identify issues in which the views of our respondents match up with none of the parties. Euthanasia is the most startling case," Loewen said.

This is how the Vote Compass question was worded: "If they so wish, should terminally ill patients be able to end their own lives with medical assistance?" Almost all Vote Compass respondents were supportive of the option, regardless of political stripe. Only a small hump of Conservative supporters strongly disagreed with the notion.

Vote Compass is not a scientific poll, meaning it's not a strictly representative sample, because the people who answered the questions are self selecting. Nonetheless, this is data gleaned from well over a million people; in fact, Loewen adds, there are thousands of people who answered in each constituency alone. Compare that to a random, scientifically representative poll that interviews 250 people in all of Atlantic Canada.

So, assuming an overwhelming majority of Canadian citizens desire a law that would allow physician assisted suicide, why do politicians consistently turn thumbs down on the idea?

Take Bill C-384, for instance, a piece of legislation introduced last year by BQ MP Francine Lalonde. That bill would have legalized doctor-assisted suicide. In October, it was soundly defeated by a margin of 228 to 59, with the Bloc Quebecois the only party voting in favour, along with a few stragglers from other parties. Now the Bloc is all but gone, reduced to a rump of four MPs. The likelihood of another private member's bill on euthanasia in the new Parliament is almost nil.

With so little political will, it may be that the issue of euthanasia or medically assisted suicide will only be resolved in the courts. In 1993, Sue Rodriguez, suffering from ALS, took her plea for assisted death to the Supreme Court of Canada. She lost in a narrow 5-4 decision, and soon after took her own life with the help of an anonymous physician.

Eighteen years later, the issue will be before the courts again.

On April 26, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit to challenge the laws that make it a criminal offense to assist seriously and incurably ill individuals to die with dignity. The plaintiffs are Lee Carter and her husband Hollis Johnson of Vancouver, who accompanied Carter's 89-year-old mother to Switzerland where doctor assisted suicide is legal. Carter's mother, Kay Carter, had severe spinal stenosis and was facing a lingering death without being able to walk or even feed herself.

Grace Pastine of the BCCLA says Lee Carter's and her husband's rights were violated because they faced prosecution -- in fact, they still do -- for assisting in a suicide. The plans to go to Switzerland had to be secretive -- Kay Carter couldn't even risk saying goodbye to her closest friends or have her entire family with her when she died.

A family physician from Victoria who feels he's being denied the right to offer what he considers compassionate care to some patients is another plaintiff in the case.

Pastine points out that for Kay Carter, and for many others who have diseases such as ALS or Huntington's disease, the concern isn't that they're in severe intractable pain. It's that their inevitable fate is to die slowly with a loss of independence and dignity, to be forced to live a life that doesn't resemble their own in any shape or form. The federal government hasn't yet filed its defence.

As for former BQ MP Francine Lalonde, the sponsor of two failed bills on assisted suicide, she didn't run in this election and won't be introducing any more bills. Her bone cancer returned, and she retired from politics to fight it.
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