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63% support assisted suicide

Manitobans want NDP to pass law allowing it

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Susan Griffiths of Winnipeg went to Europe last year to have a doctor-assisted suicide.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Susan Griffiths of Winnipeg went to Europe last year to have a doctor-assisted suicide. Photo Store

Most Manitobans believe people with terminal illnesses or severe disabilities ought to have access to euthanasia, and most Manitobans want the provincial government to allow doctors to help.

A new poll by Probe Research for the Winnipeg Free Press suggests 63 per cent of Manitobans support the right of terminally ill people to end their own lives. An even bigger majority wants the provincial government to introduce legislation allowing for physician-assisted suicide.

Those figures mirror a national poll last fall that suggested 68 per cent of Canadians support the legalization of assisted suicide.

Despite significant public support, the NDP government says it will not follow Quebec's lead and introduce legislation.

"This is a deeply personal issue of federal law being debated across the country among families, medical providers and religious leaders," said cabinet spokesman Matt Williamson. "These discussions include complex medical, ethical, moral and religious questions that will once again be considered by the Supreme Court of Canada. We'll certainly listen and learn from these discussions but any changes to the Criminal Code would need to be made by the federal government."

The Probe poll was conducted in the days before Winnipeg Conservative MP Steven Fletcher proposed two private member's bills that would amend the Criminal Code to allow physician-assisted suicide in restricted circumstances and set up a national monitoring process.

The Supreme Court will consider the issue this year, possibly reversing a 20-year ban on physician-assisted suicide.

Though public support exists for provincial legislation, most local organizations aren't engaged in the issue.

Many national disability advocates are opposed to doctor-assisted suicide, saying it creates a slippery slope where the lives of disabled people could become disposable. No one from the Society for Manitobans With Disabilities returned a call for comment Friday.

The head of Doctors Manitoba said his organization doesn't have a position on the issue, pointing to a recent survey of doctors conducted by the Canadian Medical Association that suggested most doctors oppose assisted-suicide.

Wendy Schettler, chief executive officer of the Alzheimer's Society of Manitoba said her organization also doesn't have an official position on the issue. But she said a national discussion might be premature, coming before progress on palliative, end-of-life and home care that manages pain, avoids burdening loved ones and focuses on creating moments of happiness and peace.

"If we had confidence we'd receive that kind of care, that our life would not be filled with anguish and pain, I think we would feel differently," about assisted suicide, said Schettler.

The call for better palliative care reflects much of the political response to Fletcher's bill.

Conservative cabinet ministers have said they are loath to reopen the debate. Some Tory MPs said they support improved end-of-life care instead. Fletcher's bills have garnered little public support from Liberal or NDP MPs, and have little hope of being passed.

Nearly a year ago, Winnipegger Susan Griffiths, who suffered from a rare degenerative neurological disorder, travelled to Switzerland to take advantage of that country's assisted-suicide law. In addition to several European countries, Washington, Oregon and Vermont have legalized the practice.

The Quebec bill, now in limbo due to the provincial election, would allow doctors to assist in suicide at the end of a patient's life if the patient is experiencing suffering he or she regards as intolerable or unbearable.

The bill reframes the issue as a medical, instead of as criminal, one. The provinces have jurisdiction over health, but the federal Criminal Code bans assisted suicide, which places the Quebec bill in murky jurisdictional territory.

Probe's Curtis Brown said it's a "Pandora's box" most politicians are reluctant to open. But he noted the number of people who are strongly in favour of assisted suicide is nearly double the number who are strongly opposed.

Brown said the poll reveals consistent support for assisted suicide among age groups. Though the issue may be more abstract for younger people, aged 18 to 34, than it is for retirees dealing with illness and death, support in both age groups for provincial legislation allowing doctor-assisted suicide was 65 per cent.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 A13

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