If judges were palliative-care physicians, assisted suicide would be illegal

childhospisstazkruglpreb2It turns out that doctors, more so than the general public, aren’t so sure about assisted suicide.

Eric Wasylenko, the award-winning palliative-care physician and bioethicist charged with implementing assisted suicide in Alberta, is one example. He opposes legal assisted suicide.

Physicians have been known for their uneasiness when it comes to actually taking part in assisted dying: in a Canadian Medical Association survey reported by the Toronto Star last year, only 29% of doctors said they would be willing to give a patient the means to end their life.

But more revealing is the fact that, at least according to German survey data, doctors are less likely than the public to approve of legal assisted suicide at all.

A 2015 article in the journal Der Schmerz surveyed German doctors and nurses for their views on legal assisted suicide, finding only 54% in favor, in contrast with approximately 75% of the German public.

Among palliative-care doctors—doctors who have been specially trained to care for the dying—only 41% approved of assisted suicide, even when restricted to cases of fatal, incurable illness. 24% approved of euthanasia, in which a doctor directly administers lethal drugs.

Furthermore, only 15% of palliative-care physicians thought that assisted suicide should be permitted for people with nonfatal but incurable illnesses (such as mental illnesses).

While public information on the attitudes of Canadian physicians is scarcer, it appears to fit the pattern suggested by the German data. The National Post reported last week, citing the director of a Dying with Dignity office:

“[T]here are already other, troubling currents. Most of the publicly funded palliative care services in Alberta, well positioned to provide assisted death, are run by Covenant Health, a Catholic organization that says it will have nothing to do with the process.”

Despite these “troubling currents”, however, it is true that the medical profession as a whole is supportive of the direction of Canadian death policy. The Canadian Medical Association last year revised its policy to approve of euthanasia and assisted suicide, having previously opposed the practice.

Nevertheless, advocates of “compassionate” killing ought to be troubled by a medical profession that is only hesitantly on board with their program.

If the data are to be believed, either caring for the dying makes a person less likely to approve of euthanasia, or support for euthanasia makes one less likely to care for the dying. In other words, a more educated or a more compassionate Canadian public would probably be less agreeable to the new regime.

Advocates should be grateful the Supreme Court is not comprised of palliative-care physicians.