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Events will force politicians to weigh in

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Will lawmakers ever get on the same page as the majority of citizens who support assisted suicide for the terminally ill?

To date, euthanasia is a sequestered issue, a debate that has found very little audience in legislatures across this country. It's divisive, visceral and exactly the kind of issue most politicians with an interest in getting re-elected stay away from with relish.

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Quebec -- where support for euthanasia has traditionally been highest -- introduced a law that would allow limited physician-assisted suicide, but it was not passed before the PQ government called an election. As well, the Supreme Court of Canada is expected this year to hear a challenge to a lower-court decision in British Columbia that upheld the legal prohibition against assisted suicide. Finally, Winnipeg Conservative MP Steven Fletcher last week introduced two private member's bills outlining a protocol for allowing physician-assisted suicide in specific cases.

These events come at a time when support for euthanasia appears formidable. A Free Press/Probe poll shows two-thirds of Manitobans (traditionally the most skeptical on this issue) would support physician-assisted suicide.

That is consistent with a 2013 Environics Institute poll that showed seven in 10 Canadians support physician-assisted death for terminally ill patients.

Support for euthanasia has been high for some time. Environics reported 20 years ago that two-thirds of Canadians supported the concept.

An aging population is keenly aware of this issue. Add to that the knowledge that methods such as terminal sedation and palliative-care practices have taken us to the edge of assisted death.

Why then has government remained at odds with public opinion? On this political issue, personal values have trumped policy need. And fear of a motivated minority has eclipsed the preferences of a concerned majority.

Euthanasia is an issue where the minority opponents are seen as more potent than the majority. It's difficult for someone to be passionately in favour of it, even though many people support the concept. However, for those who view it as a social or religious affront, the issue is worth fighting against. It's perilous ground for any politician who wants to be re-elected. And particularly risky for any politician in government.

One of the great ironies of parliamentary democracy is that majority governments tend to be inherently conservative on tricky social issues. Having achieved power, governing parties are loath to do anything to rock that boat. The result is a chronic aversion to risk. Still, governments occasionally listen to the will of the majority on thorny issues.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau grabbed headlines last summer by not only pledging support for the legalization of marijuana possession, but also admitting he had smoked pot while an MP. Initially, the Tories assailed Trudeau and rejected the idea of easing pot laws. "It's currently against the law to smoke dope," said Peter MacKay, federal minister of justice, when he was asked in late August 2013 about easing pot laws.

However, when it quickly became apparent the majority of Canadians supported decriminalizing or legalizing pot -- and were mostly indifferent to Trudeau's personal experience with the drug -- the tune changed. Last month, MacKay signalled his government would introduce changes to drug laws to allow police to ticket people found to be in possession of a small amount of marijuana. "The prime minister has signalled his openness to this," MacKay said.

In just six months or so, a federal government formerly dead set against any discussion of easing drug laws vows to do just that.

Where do we go from here on the euthanasia debate? It's unclear whether Fletcher's bills will make much headway. However, even if the Tory majority stalls those bills, the government cannot avoid having to deal with the fallout from the Supreme Court hearing on the B.C. appeal.

When the Supreme Court dealt with this issue two decades ago, it upheld the ban on assisted suicide. However, the high court's renewed interest in this issue suggests subsequent decisions on constitutional rights may cast a new light on the euthanasia debate.

Until that decision is delivered, most of our lawmakers will be on standby. Not wanting to get into the issue, but preparing for the inevitable day when it's finally time to set aside personal values and focus on policy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 A12

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