The Canadian Medical Association held its annual conference in August, where members of the organization debated whether changes to its policy on euthanasia were necessary. According to the Globe and Mail’s health reporter, Andre Picard, the group’s position has not yet changed. However, the CMA now, “supports the right of all physicians, within the bounds of existing legislation, to follow their conscience when deciding whether to provide medical aid in dying.” Picard believes the new stance recognizes that “while assisting death is still a crime in Canada, the attitudes of Canadians, including those of physicians, are changing quickly, and so is the law.”

In June, Quebec’s National Assembly legalized “medical aid in dying” in a 94 to 22 vote. This October, the Gloria Taylor case will be examined by the Supreme Court, as the federal government is appealing the B.C. Supreme Court decision which declared the law banning assisted suicide to be unconstitutional.

Dr. Louis Francescutti, outgoing president of the Canadian Medical Association, said that “it’s only a matter of time” until the new resolution is implemented as 91 per cent of delegates were in favour. If it is put in place, the association will back “a doctor’s right to refuse to hasten the death of a terminally ill patient, but it will also support a doctor’s right to hasten death if the law allows.”

Member physicians are divided on the effects of the change. Calgary family physician Sarah Bates, whose mother and sister were diagnosed with early onset dementia in their 40s, said, “there are conditions where no level of oxygen, morphine or supportive counselling will provide relief. There is no physician who would not offer a patient death without first offering them life.” Bates said she believes that both choices should be available to the terminally ill, based on her current role of caregiver and future position as patient.

Dr. John Haggie of Gander, Newfoundland, believes the problem of suffering requires a different solution. “To the question, ‘Do patients have access to adequate palliative care?’ the answer is an unequivocal ‘No’.”

In a report on the conference by the CBC, Haggie is quoted saying, “the driver for this discussion is a desperate lack of palliative-care services,” noting we “don’t have a hospice in the province anywhere.” Toronto family doctor Suzanne Strasberg told conference attendees “palliative care has become a specialized service in most areas of the country and we must, as family physicians, take palliative care back into our practices.” The Globe and Mail reported that “fewer than 30 per cent of Canadians have access to palliative care, though there are pockets of excellence around the country.”

Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition is surprised with shift in the Canadian Medical Association's position on assisted suicide.

Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition is surprised with shift in the Canadian Medical Association’s position on assisted suicide.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, told The Interim that the resolution was somewhat unexpected. In July, the association released a document on assisted suicide that gave little indication this is where the CMA was headed. “According to their polls, doctors should not be involved” in the procedure, explained Schadenberg. According the EPC’s physican contacts, the conference session on end-of-life care was stacked against the anti-euthanasia position.

Schadenberg said the CMA’s position “may seem like an unusual reversal of their stance, but the group is showing consistency in ‘the reference to conscience’.” He added the CMA “is not protecting the right to say no, but the right to follow your conscience.”

Schadenberg called the resolution “a serious problem. If it’s legal, you have the option to do it. The euthanasia lobby claims that 91 per cent of doctors support physician-assisted death. Some physicians who opposed the resolution voted in favour because it says they do not have to do (assisted suicide procedures) or refer (for them). It can do both harm and good.”

He reaffirmed the coalition’s view that assisted suicide “is fundamentally incompatible with role of physician as healer. There is something fundamentally wrong (with) physicians intentionally causing the death of another person. It will forever alter the way our society views life and death.”