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June 27, 2016

It is good to see leaders of various Canadian faith groups speaking out in unison in favour of greater availability of palliative care in this country. (See: Faith leaders unite in call for palliative care) This call is especially timely with the advent of legal assisted suicide.

One force that could drive significant numbers of people to seek assisted suicide is the lack of palliative care which meets the social, psychological, medical and spiritual needs of the dying. When people feel isolated and abandoned in their hour of greatest distress or when their medical needs are not being fully met, the temptation to turn to assisted suicide becomes stronger than ever.

However, the push for greater public support for palliative care is not new in Canada. Nor is the government indifference which has greeted previous advocacy.

Most noteworthy were the attempts by then-Senator Sharon Carstairs, minister with special responsibility for palliative care in the Chrétien government, who chaired a Senate committee which issued a report on euthanasia and assisted suicide 21 years ago.

Carstairs' committee recommended no change in the law governing assisted suicide, but that there should be research into the number of people who ask to be put to death and why they wanted assisted suicide.

Her committee also urged the federal government to make palliative care a top priority in the restructuring of health care. The government, it said, should establish national guidelines, mandate the training of health-care professionals in palliative care and expand research into pain control and symptom relief.

Except for increased training of medical students in palliative care, Carstairs' recommendations have largely gathered dust. Palliative care has been expanded, but remains unavailable to at least 70 per cent of Canadians.

The clarion call for assisted suicide has been "Choice!" However, when palliative care is unavailable, the choice is extremely limited. If Canadians do believe in a humane, compassionate end to life, then governments must move from lip service to action. Good quality palliative care - in small communities and in large cities - needs to indeed become top priority in our health care system.