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21 Sep 2015

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down laws banning physician-assisted suicide for patients with “grievous and irremediable” medical conditions. Despite the change, a new survey indicated only 29 per cent of Canadian physicians would be willing to assist a gravely ill patient who wants to end their life.

The poll conducted by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) found that 63 per cent of doctors wanted no part in assisted dying, while a further eight per cent remained unsure.

In August 2014, the CMA altered its long-established opposition to doctors’ assisting in suicides. Its new policy allows physicians, within the bounds of laws, “to follow their conscience when deciding whether to provide medical aid in dying.”

President of the CMA Dr Chris Simpson said the challenge is to create rules and regulations that ensure patients have access to the end-of-life care they want, up to and including hastened death, while ensuring the autonomy of doctors and not forcing them to engage in care that clashes with their religious and moral beliefs.

The CMA is developing its position on the complex and emotionally charged issue of physician-assisted death. At a recent meeting, CMA’s General Council debated whether physicians who oppose assisted death have a legal and professional obligation to refer patients to someone who is willing to provide the service.

More than 75 per cent of delegates agreed that physicians should provide information to patients on all end-of-life options available to them, but should not be obliged to refer.

Practically, most assisted deaths will be carried out by general practitioners who were the most open to the idea. In a smaller poll, of the 372 GPs questioned, 65 per cent said they would be willing to provide an assisted death if there were clear rules.

The Canadian Federal Court gave Federal lawmakers a year to come up with new legislation after it said it was unconstitutional to deny gravely ill patients a choice in how they die. The current Government has stalled on the development of new legislation so it is likely from February 7 next year assisted dying will become legal in Canada.

Vice President of the CMA Jeff Blackmer said the Court’s deadline puts a lot of pressure of physicians. He said it will be essential to provide training and information to physicians so they can have informed discussions with patients, and also so they have the technical skills to perform an assisted death if they so choose. Dr Blackmer said, come February 7, he’s not sure they will be ready to help people with assisted death.

Kirsty Waterford

Published: 21 Sep 2015