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Canadians to decide right to die

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The Probe Research poll has found more than 60 per cent of Manitobans strongly or moderately support euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. That puts this province roughly in line with the prevailing, long-standing sentiment on euthanasia in Canada.

But a significant portion of that support would hedge, giving a qualified nod to helping those who are suffering die.

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The telephone poll's results come in the wake of a Supreme Court of Canada announcement it will hear an appeal of a British Columbia assisted-suicide case. Both individuals in the B.C. case, which sought to overturn the Criminal Code ban on assisted suicide, are now dead. Yet the issue is very much alive, propelled by the recent pleas of a few very ill and dying Canadians and by a now-deferred Quebec bill that would have allowed physicians to help patients die under certain circumstances.

The Harper government should not let the courts decide this issue. And polls cannot be used to frame new law on the right to die.

The Supreme Court will render a decision on whether the Charter of Rights and Freedoms can be used to overturn the law to protect the rights of individuals who have terminal illnesses or are suffering intractably and want help to end their lives. The court, should it decide the current Criminal Code ban on assisted suicide is unconstitutional, will not write a new law. That will be left for Parliament.

Polls on euthanasia, on the other hand, only broadly reflect general sentiment. For more than 20 years, Canadians have been asked their views of assisted suicide. Over that time, the focus of the discussion as to who should be allowed such help, and in what circumstances has shifted -- moving from those with terminal illnesses and who will be unable to kill themselves to include those who are in the painful grips from a mental illness that cannot be relieved, or, even, those who cannot speak for themselves.

Over the decades, opinions have fallen on side with assisted suicide, but parse the response or change the question and things are not so clear. In this recent poll, Probe lumps those who moderately or strongly support (and moderately or strongly oppose) for the principle of euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. While respondents in support considerably outweigh those opposed to euthanasia, the "for" column includes a significant proportion of people moderately in favour.

When the topic is about killing someone, the qualifications or reservations that one-quarter or more of respondents would apply to their support must be examined.

The Harper government has already stated it has no intention to open up debate on assisted suicide, but the fallout of the pending Supreme Court decision may force its hand. And it is the nuance of opinion that must guide Canada if the Criminal Code is to be rewritten to accommodate the rights of those who want help in dying, while protecting the lives of those who will be made more vulnerable as the law and public sentiment shift.

It is Parliament's job to decide how a law reflects the values of the nation. Parliament has not sought public input since the Senate released its 1995 report Of Life and Death. It is time Canadians were heard on the right to die, the need to protect life and the belief of many that the two goals are not incompatible.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 A16

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