3 ways the new Angus Reid poll on assisted dying misses the mark

A new poll by the Angus Reid Institute suggests that Canadians are uncomfortable with some of the recommendations put forward in response to the Supreme Court’s February 6 decision on physician-assisted dying. Based on a survey of 1,517 Canadian adults, the institute’s survey asked respondents a number of questions inspired by some of the most controversial recommendations of Parliament’s Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, including proposals surrounding mental illness, the obligations of faith-based institutions and providing access to mature minors. 

The polling questions leave much to be desired. The criteria set out by the Supreme Court decision is nowhere to be found, and the actual recommendations of the Joint Committee (and indeed the committee itself) aren’t explicitly laid out to respondents. The design of the survey raises major questions about the usefulness of some of its findings.

With that in mind, here’s a list of three ways in which Angus Reid’s latest poll on physician-assisted dying misses the mark.

1) The poll provided minimal information on the nature of the Supreme Court decision to participants.

Survey participants were given little to no information about the Supreme Court’s February 6, 2015 decision on physician-assisted dying. When it comes into effect, the ruling will decriminalize physician-assisted dying for competent adults who are suffering intolerably as the result of a “grievous and irremediable illness” and who clearly consent to the termination of life.

This would be helpful information to present to survey-takers before asking them questions about how government should respond to the court’s decision, would it not? But instead, respondents were asked whether assisted dying was appropriate in a number of different scenarios. Some of these scenarios are clearly permitted under the criteria laid out by the Supreme Court. For example, the court’s decision does not exclude patients with mental illness who fit the eligibility criteria from access to assisted dying. (Thus, passing laws that bar Canadians who’ve suffered for decades from severe mental illness risks violating the Supreme Court’s decision and ultimately, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.)

Other scenarios presented in the survey aren’t considered in either the Supreme Court’s decision or the Joint Committee’s final recommendations. For some reason, the Angus Reid poll asked whether they believed assisted dying should be allowed for inmates serving life sentences and people who wanted to stop spending money in order to leave their family with a larger inheritance. These suggestions are preposterous and serve no real function in gauging Canadians’ views on policy proposals that are actually on the table. Questions like these are a distraction and lack relevant context to help the participant form an informed, relevant opinion.

2) The poll failed to include the discussion over advance consent in its final summary and report.

One of the most hotly debated issues in physician-assisted dying is advance consent, where Canadians with dementia and other severe chronic conditions would have the right to consent to life-ending treatment while they are still sound of mind. This was a major issue addressed in the joint parliamentary committee’s report and it continues to dog policymakers as they draft up legislation.

Interestingly, Angus Reid made no mention of advance consent in its final summary even though they did ask people about the issue. If you dig around their final polling data, you’ll find that 66 per cent of their survey participants supported advance consent for individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

3) In choosing to frame its story around the mentally ill, the poll perpetuates harmful and pervasive attitudes.

The poll found that 73 per cent of Canadians say assisted dying should be allowed for people who have a terminal illness or are in a great deal of pain. But 78 per cent of those surveyed said psychological pain on its own did not meet the criteria.

Again, the people surveyed would have benefited from having more contextual information other than simply being asked whether assisted dying should or should not be made available to those with psychological suffering. Perhaps if people were reminded that the Supreme Court made assisted dying available to competent individuals suffering unendurable pain, this would have helped people to make a more informed response.

For one, many individuals with severe depression are treatment-resistant, leading to agonizing and unbearable emotional, and sometimes physical, suffering. This is compounded by the fact that they are often expected to “just get over it” because their illnesses are not considered legitimate. And let’s not also forget that these individuals are at a high risk of dying by their own hand because the pain is so insufferable — making psychological illnesses potentially fatal.

Given the guidelines put forth by the Supreme Court, these individuals absolutely do qualify for assisted dying. Exempting them from assisted dying would not only be a violation of their Charter rights, but it would solidify the stigma of mental illness as not being a “real” sickness like cancer. We cannot compassionately help one group of people die with dignity and ignore another.

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