Only one in four doctor’s would help terminally ill patients end their lives if practice was legal in Canada

Only one-quarter of the nation’s doctors would be willing to help end their lives if the practice of doctor-assisted suicide were legalized in this country, a survey by Canada’s biggest doctors’ group suggests.

Just 26% of doctors surveyed by the said they would be “very or somewhat likely” to participate in doctor-assisted dying, while 54% were “very or somewhat unlikely” to do so, according to a summary of the survey posted on the CMA’s website.

The doctors’ group opposes and doctor-hastened death. But the issues will be high on the agenda at the CMA’s general council meeting this month in , with a devoted entirely to end-of-life care.

Euthanasia involves “knowingly and intentionally” performing an act — usually administering a lethal injection of — with the of ending a life.

Lars Hagberg for National PostLars Hagberg for National PostEuthanasia involves “knowingly and intentionally” performing an act — usually administering a lethal injection of barbiturates — with the sole intention of ending a life.

With physician-assisted suicide, the doctor provides a patient with the knowledge or means, or both, required to commit suicide, including “ about lethal doses of drugs, prescribing such lethal doses or supplying the drugs,” according to the CMA’s current policy, which was last updated in 2007.

are opposed by almost every national medical association and prohibited by the law codes of almost all countries,” the policy reads. “A change in the legal status of these practices in Canada would represent a major shift in social policy and behaviour.”

The issue has taken on new immediacy with ’s move this summer to become the first province in the country to introduce a law that would protect from prosecution or jail doctors who offer the terminally ill medical assistance to die.

A change in the legal status of these practices in Canada would represent a major shift in social policy and behaviour

In June, Quebec’s Parti Quebecois government introduced Bill 52, an act respecting end-of-life care, which sets out the rules that would allow terminal palliative sedation as well as “medical aid in dying.”

Under the bill, only a patient of legal age and capable of giving consent and who is suffering from an incurable illness and “constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain” would be permitted to seek a doctor-hastened death.

Canada’s Criminal Code prohibits euthanasia and assisted suicide, stating that, “no person can consent to have death inflicted upon him.”

RelatedBelgium on the verge of making euthanasia more accessible for gravely ill childrenToday’s letters: ‘Killing is not caring’ and other arguments against euthanasia‘Demands of Quebec society’ behind controversial right-to-die bill, junior health minister saysDeaf twins killed by legal euthanasia had to search two years before they found someone who would do itHealthy, independent Vancouver senior commits suicide in bid to change right-to-die law

The issue is now before the courts: The federal government is appealing a B.C. court ruling that last summer struck down Canada’s ban on doctor-assisted suicide, ruling it unconstitutional and granting a woman dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease the right to seek a doctor’s help in ending her life.

It’s not a request Dr. John You has ever been faced with. “I personally am uncomfortable with the idea, but I know it’s something that we’ll need to have a societal debate about,” said Dr. You, an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and a member of the Canadian Researchers at the End of Life Network.

He said he worries the emotionally charged issue will overshadow the urgent need for better access to quality, end-of-life care for Canadians.

We have over 100 stories, and they all have that kind of poignancy

In a recent article published in the journal Nature, Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, Canada research chair in palliative care, said the culture of medicine “largely ignores death and tends to abandon patients when cure is no longer viable.”

“If we’re really, as a society, considering changing legislation that is going to allow for assisted suicide, it almost seems unfathomable that we would go that route before we have any obligation to be providing everyone quality, end-of-life care,” he said in an interview.

Dr. Chochinov is piloting a study, funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, of what’s known as the Patient Dignity Question. The simple question — “What do I need to know about you as a person to give you the best care possible?” — is meant to help doctors and palliative care teams provide more empathetic care to the terminally ill.

Dr. Chochinov and his team have been collecting patients’ responses over the past two years. “One woman said she wanted us to know she was very afraid of dying alone and she hoped that someone would be there at the moment of her passing,” he said.

“We have over 100 stories, and they all have that kind of poignancy,” he said. “Patients are saying, ‘I know I have a medical chart that is a list of problems, but what you need to know is, this is me.’ “

The CMA survey of nearly 1,600 doctors also found that most doctors have discussed the subject of “advance directives” for end-of-life care with fewer than one in four patients. Advance directives are written plans setting out what life-prolonging treatments patients would accept or reject if they were dying.

“If we’re not clear on what patients’ wishes are, there is a real risk that they’ll receive treatment that they actually don’t want,” You said.

About Sharon Kirkey, Postmedia News