Dr. David Robertson: Conservatives' take on assisted dying plays politics with people's lives

In his latest guest column, DWD Canada Physicians Advisory Council co-chair Dr. David Robertson lays out a troubling trend in the incumbent government's highly partisan approach to the Supreme Court's decision on medically assisted death.

David_Robertson.pngHenry Kissinger famously asked the media: "Does anyone have any questions for my answers?"

Canadians are now invited to take part in a consultation process that would make Kissinger proud.

This summer, the Conservative government quietly announced that it had struck a panel of experts to consult Canadians on their views on assisted dying. The unveiling occurred quietly, via a late-afternoon news release on a Friday in July, nearly six months after the Supreme Court issued its historic ruling on assisted dying.

It was at this point that the Conservative record on assisted dying shifted from inaction to obstruction. No matter that 84 per cent of Canadians support physician assisted dying, or that the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled it is a patient right. The Conservative government has consistently opposed it. Now, in panel chair and palliative care researcher Harvey Chochinov and his colleagues on the panel, the Conservatives have found willing accomplices.

No one should be surprised by this. Chochinov and co-panelist Catherine Frazee provided testimony in the Carter case for the right to die with dignity. You might think that qualifies them as experts in how to implement the Supreme Court's unanimous decision — except that they both testified against legalization.

Once appointed, they announced that they could overcome their biases and implement the Supreme Court's decision.

But the government's questionnaire shows otherwise.

Questions Designed to Create Fear

Last month, while the federal campaign was ramping up, the feds released an online survey to gather Canadians' thoughts on end-of-life choice. However, the questionnaire is designed to manufacture fear, not to solicit information. For example, a question about eligibility asks whether someone should have access to assisted dying because they fear being a burden or if they are 16 years old. Neither of these situations are contemplated in the Supreme Court's decision.

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I wonder at their restraint. Why not just ask if doctors should be able to kill people to free up hospital beds?

Evidence is Ignored

Ever notice a lobbyist advocating for an unsupported position? They often quote a token spokesperson to defend their decision or simply refer to a vague group of supporters.

Thanks to years of high-quality research, we know the impact of assisted dying on palliative care. Here is B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith's summary that was ultimately relied upon by the Supreme Court of Canada:

The research does not clearly show either a negative or a positive impact in permissive jurisdictions [countries/states that allow assisted dying] on the availability of palliative care or on the physician-patient relationship. — Justice Lynn Smith, B.C. Supreme Court

Yet, featured prominently are words that suggest we should be very concerned about palliative care indeed.

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Even when presenting the alternative point of view, the panel still manages to include the phrase "the negative impact of physician assisted dying on palliative care." It's masterfully misleading and manipulative.

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Choices Omit Middle Ground

This presentation of black and white choices does provide information about two options -- but it precludes the consideration of a more nuanced position, like the Canadian Medical Association's proposal (sec. 5.2) that doctors who are unwilling to provide assisted dying should refer patients to an independent agency.

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The Conservatives Have Made Assisted Dying a Political Issue

With 84 per cent of Canadians supporting assisted dying, including 77 per cent of Conservative voters, I wonder why the Conservative government didn't just duck this issue. They could have left this to the provinces or adopted the legislation already created by Conservative MP Steven Fletcher in his private member's bills. Instead, they're gambling that voters, even in those their own party, won't notice and won't care.

The Liberals and the NDP have now come out with strong statements in support of assisted dying, while the Greens have been long-time advocates.

Will this make a difference on election day? A recent Ipsos poll shows it is one of the top 15 election issues for Canadians, which suggests it is registering with voters. For the sake of the those whose living — and dying — depends on reasonable legislation, I really hope it does.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post Canada.


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