One of the most compelling moments of this year’s Canadian federal election campaign occurred during the televised French language debate, when Quebec resident Lise Pigeon asked a question about physician-assisted dying.
Pigeon, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, queried the leaders of Canada’s federal parties on whether they would respect a recent court decision in her province that branded Canada’s existing regulations on physician-assisted dying as “too restrictive.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to “relax” existing guidelines within the first six months of getting a new mandate from Canadians.
While Quebec is home to plenty of discussions about physician-assisted dying, British Columbia has been one of the most influential jurisdictions in this complex debate. In the early 1990s, Victoria resident and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) sufferer Sue Rodriguez was unsuccessful in seeking medical assistance to end her life after taking her case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
More recently, in 2012, Vancouver lawyer Joseph Arvay represented several plaintiffs who sought medical assistance to end their lives – including Gloria Taylor – and ultimately saw the provincial Supreme Court declare a section of the Criminal Code invalid. As expected, the federal government headed by Stephen Harper appealed the decision.
Just four years later, the federal government, now under a majority mandate for the Liberal Party, allowed assisted dying in specific circumstances. The official announcement of the new law stated that it possessed “the right balance between personal autonomy and protecting the vulnerable.” The joint statement was signed by then justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and then health minister Jane Philpott. Neither of these politicians will be part of any effort to modify the legislation, if Trudeau fulfils his promise to Pigeon.
The law as it exists today allows a person to seek physician-assisted suicide only if five conditions are met. The person must be eligible for health services funded by the federal government, or a province or territory (or during the applicable minimum period of residence or waiting period for eligibility), being at least 18 years old and mentally competent, having a grievous and irremediable medical condition, making a voluntary request for medical assistance in dying that is not the result of outside pressure or influence, and giving informed consent to receive medical assistance in dying.
Research Co. asked British Columbians about this matter earlier this month, and a sizable proportion of residents have no qualms about the current state of affairs, Across the province, three in four residents (75%) support allowing a person to seek physician-assisted suicide if the five conditions established in the law are met, while only 16% are opposed.
Men (79%) are more supportive of the current guidelines than women (70%). British Columbians aged 35 to 54 and 55 and over are also more likely to endorse the guidelines (79% and 78% respectively) than those aged 18 to 34 (71%).
The issue is more contentious on a regional basis. While 82% of Vancouver Islanders and 79% of Metro Vancouverites support the legislation, the proportion drops to 72% in northern B.C., 65% in southern B.C. and 59% in the Fraser Valley.
Almost half of British Columbians (47%) claim to be satisfied with the regulations that are currently in place in Canada to deal with the issue of physician-assisted suicide, while 25% are dissatisfied and 28% are undecided.
When British Columbians are asked about their personal feeling about physician-assisted suicide, the regional divisions endure. Just under three in five residents of the province (58%) think the practice should be permitted under specific circumstances, while 18% want it to never be allowed and 12% think anyone should be able to request physician-assisted suicide.
In southern B.C., more than one in five residents (22%) are against allowing physician-assisted suicide in any form. In the Fraser Valley, the proportion jumps to 31%. In these two regions, the number of residents who would endorse on-demand physician-assisted suicide is in single digits (4% and 7% respectively).
There are fewer than 12 countries in the world that allow a form of physician-assisted dying, including the three U.S. states that touch the Pacific Ocean – Washington, Oregon and California. The views of British Columbians on this particular issue do not go through severe fluctuations on account of gender or age, but there is a regional component that is seldom observed in policy matters originating from Ottawa.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted November 4–7, 2019, among 800 adult British Columbians. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.