CARP poll shows broad member support for assisted suicide

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen and the Montreal Gazette on September 10th, 2010. To go to the Montreal Gazette website please click here

TORONTO — As hearings open in Quebec into physician-assisted suicide, and amid calls for the same in Ontario, a new survey shows an overwhelming majority of Canada’s leading lobby group for the elderly supports euthanasia for terminally ill or end-of-life patients.

The online poll by the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) shows 71 per cent of respondents agree that euthanasia should be allowed for such patients. That includes more than one-third who strongly support the idea.

Susan Eng, a CARP spokeswoman, believes the results shouldn’t be interpreted strictly as a call to legalize euthanasia.

“What they’re actually telling (us) is they’re afraid of a bad death. They’re afraid that when the end comes and it gets ugly, that they’re in terrible pain or lose all their dignity, that they don’t have a way out,” she said.

But the emphatic response is prompting calls by CARP and others for Ontario to hold a round of public consultations on the issue.

Quebec began much the same thing this week, as it opened hearings into dying with dignity. But groups at that forum sounded a note of caution Thursday, with calls for better suicide prevention strategies before steps are taken toward legalizing physician-assisted suicide.

Marion Cooper, president of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, said public discussion about assisted suicide is important, “but it’s premature to have a position on assisted suicide when we don’t have a national strategy on suicide prevention, which is a public-health issue,” she said.

“It’s very dangerous to tread on those topics without an overarching support for suicide prevention. There’s a risk that if legislation on assisted suicide were to move forward, that it could be misinterpreted and abused.”

A cool reaction from Ontario politicians indicates similar hearings are unlikely in Canada’s most populous province.

Both Premier Dalton McGuinty and Conservative Leader Tim Hudak refused to comment Thursday.

Ontario New Democrat MPP France Gelinas said the political response reflects a broader problem.

“A lot of people, including our premier apparently, have a hard time talking about death. It’s one of the biggest taboos left in society in 2010,” she said. “But I think the public is ready to have these types of discussions, for sure.”

CARP’s Eng notes euthanasia is an emotionally charged topic that invites extreme viewpoints.

“I can see why there’s a political resistance to it,” she said. “It can get hysterical from some quarters, because we haven’t had a decent public discourse. I think what this survey shows is people are ready to talk. They are ready to get at it because it’s meaningful to them.”

Assisted suicide is illegal in Canada and is punishable with up to 14 years in prison. The last major public debate on the issue came amid a court challenge in 1992 by Sue Rodriguez, a British Columbia woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against Rodriguez, who nevertheless killed herself with the help of an unidentified physician.