Two surveys indicate that palliative care physicians have a different position on euthanasia and assisted suicide from doctors in general. The results of a survey of the members of the Canadian Medical Association released in February showed that 20 per cent of respondents would euthanize patients if it was legal and 16 per cent would participate in assisted suicide. More than four in ten physicians (42 per cent) would refuse engaging in euthanasia and 23 per cent were unsure. In regards to assisted suicide, 44 per cent of doctors would not practice it and 26 per cent were unsure.
The electronic survey, completed by 2,125 respondents in July 2011, showed that doctors are less approving of the procedure than the Canadian public, of which, according to a recent Forum Research poll, 67 per cent are in favour of legalizing assisted suicide. Yet only a third of doctors responding to the CMA survey said assisted suicide should probably or definitely be legal (34 per cent), and 38 per cent said it should be probably or definitely illegal.
The CMA results, though, still provide a stark contrast to a survey of the almost 300 members of the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians conducted in November 2010 in which almost 46 per cent of the membership responded. Fully eight in ten of those surveyed were against legalizing assisted suicide and 88 per cent were against allowing euthanasia. Furthermore, 90 per cent said that they would not participate in euthanasia and 83 per cent said they would not be part of an assisted suicide. The results of both may not be fully indicative of all doctors because many did not participate.
Although she believes that the CMA polling results are largely speculative, Dr. Margaret Cottle, a palliative care physician and clinical care instructor at the University of British Columbia, told The Interim that the important thing to take away from these surveys is that “those who work with dying patients and their families…think this is a bad idea.” Yet she warned the opinions are not “as relevant” if those surveyed do not come into contact with the terminally ill and those in need of palliative care.
As for why doctors are much more reluctant to approve of assisted suicide or euthanasia than the general public, Cottle points out that for physicians, there is “no bright line between someone who is completely healthy and someone who is quite sick.” She explained, “we understand that people are very vulnerable when they are suffering.” Meanwhile, the average person is predominantly concerned about the loss of personal autonomy. Cottle compared legalizing assisted suicide and overturning the Hippocratic Oath to cutting down an old growth forest. It would ostensibly provide a short-term benefit to a few individuals, but the “loss is overwhelming to the great majority’.”