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Canadians open to expanding access to medically assisted death: poll

Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about their views on medical assistance in dying.

Canadians begin the year with the prospect of a federal election taking place in the spring.

The governing Liberal Party of Canada may see an opportunity to earn a majority mandate, depending on how well the efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic go and how many residents are successfully vaccinated in the next three months. But before we start to ponder platforms and candidates, lawmakers in Ottawa will deal with pending concerns.

One of the legislative reviews that is expected to take place soon is related to medical assistance in dying. In 2016, the federal government introduced legislation to allow Canadians to have this option under specific circumstances. The current revision of the law was compelled by the Superior Court of Quebec, which ruled in September 2019 that a “reasonably foreseeable” natural death should not be considered a precondition for medical assistance in dying.

After some delays and extensions, the federal government has until February 26, 2021, to pass a new version of the bill that removes this particular requirement. With this in mind, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about their views on medical assistance in dying.

Close to 14,000 medically assisted deaths have been reported in Canada since the federal law was introduced. The individuals who sought medical assistance met five specific conditions: being 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.

Canadians are extremely supportive of the current guidelines. Three in four (76%) support allowing a person to seek medical assistance in dying in Canada if these conditions are met, while 13% are opposed and 11% are undecided.

Canadians aged 55 and over are slightly more likely to endorse the existing regulations (82%) than those aged 35 to 54 (74%) and those aged 18 to 34 (73%). On a regional basis, support is highest in Alberta (84%) and Saskatchewan and Manitoba (80%), but also includes sizable majorities in British Columbia (79%), Quebec (77%), Ontario (74%) and Atlantic Canada (also 74%).

While Conservative Party supporters have sometimes been at odds with the federal government on moral issues, the level to animosity towards medical assistance in dying is not high. As expected, large majorities of Canadians who voted for the Liberal Party (82%) and the New Democratic Party (NDP) (84%) in the 2019 election endorse the existing law. They are joined by 72% of those who cast ballots for the Conservative Party.

When Canadians are asked what their personal feeling about medical assistance in dying is, almost three in five (58%) say it should be allowed, but only under specific circumstances. This leaves two smaller groups that suggest a more drastic approach. While 20% of Canadians would always allow medical assistance in dying, regardless of who requests it, only 11% believe the possibility should never be there.

The level of support for “on demand” medical assistance in dying is very similar across all groups, but peaks at 23% among New Democrats. In a similar fashion, the level of agreement with a return to a Canada without medical assistance in dying reaches 16% among Conservatives.

Finally, a plurality of Canadians (43%) say they are satisfied with the regulations that are currently in place in the country to deal with the issue of medical assistance in dying. This leaves 26% who are dissatisfied, and 31% who are simply not sure.

The debate on this matter has been concentrated primarily in Eastern Canada, which is where residents express more satisfaction with the current state of affairs. This includes a majority of Quebecers (51%) and more than two in five Atlantic Canadians (46%) and Ontarians (45%). The numbers are lower in Alberta (38%), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (34%) and British Columbia (30%).

With a federal election looming, deriding the law to cater to social conservatives would not be a winning strategy. Only 13% of Canadians are opposed to allowing a person to seek medical assistance in dying under the current guidelines and 11% think this is a practice that should never be allowed in the country. The fact that dissatisfaction with the legislation reaches 26% shows that there is a larger appetite for expanding the scope and reach of the legislation – as echoed by the Superior Court of Quebec – than for abolishing it.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co. 

Results are based on an online study conducted from January 9 to January 11, 2021, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.