September 8, 2014

TORONTO – The Canadian Medical Association has passed a new policy on conscience rights that supports a doctor's right to choose whether to help patients commit suicide in jurisdictions where it may become legal.

"If the law were to change, then we would support the right of physicians to follow their conscience. It (the new policy) doesn't say we favour a change in the law," said Dr. Jeff Blackmer, the CMA's executive director of ethics.

The CMA stance opposing euthanasia remains in place.

"Our position is still that Canadian physicians should not participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide," Blackmer said.

The CMA will come to the defence of doctors who refuse to participate in euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide if the law changes to make those practices legal.

The national doctors' association is among the parties arguing against a change in the Criminal Code in the Carter case coming before the Supreme Court of Canada in October.

The B.C. Supreme Court struck down the law against assisted suicide in 2012, giving Parliament one year to come up with new legislation. That ruling has been stayed until after the Supreme Court of Canada rules on the appeal.

The CMA position on conscience makes no difference to the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada, said CHAC president Michael Shea.

"It's certainly still the view of Catholic health care that palliative care is the appropriate approach to end-of-life questions and issues. It certainly doesn't change things for us," Shea said.

Defending the conscience rights of doctors does not settle the contentious issue, Shea said.

Public opinion on euthanasia has remained fairly constant, while doctor opinion is divided. Regular polling by the Environics Focus Canada research program shows public approval for assisted suicide has increased, moving from 64 per cent in 2000 to 71 per cent in 2013.

A dwindling minority of people believe assisted suicide should result in criminal charges, the Environics poll found.

Between 2000 and 2013 Canadians who believed physician-assisted suicide should be a crime dropped from 26 per cent to 19 per cent. Environics said its national telephone poll is accurate within plus or minus 2.2 per cent.

Doctors are more or less evenly split on legalizing euthanasia.