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Canadians remain divided about medical assistance in dying, poll finds

Next month, Canada will mark seven years since the successful passage of Bill C-14, which legalized medical assistance in dying across the country.
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In June, Canada will mark seven years since the successful passage of Bill C-14

Next month, Canada will mark seven years since the successful passage of Bill C-14, which legalized medical assistance in dying across the country.

When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about the current state of affairs, we found a surprising generational divide on the existing and eventual reach of the legislation.

More than seven in 10 Canadians (73 per cent, down three points since January 2021) support allowing a person to seek medical assistance in dying in Canada if six conditions are met: Being eligible for health services funded by the federal government or a province or territory; 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.

Support for the existing rules is strong across all regions, ages and genders, with opposition reaching 22 per cent among Conservative Party voters in 2021. Canadians who voted for the Liberal Party or the New Democratic Party (NDP) two years ago are less likely to find fault with the legislation (14 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively).

On a separate question, the notion of “on-demand” medical assistance in dying continues to be endorsed by one in five Canadians (20 per cent, unchanged, Canadians aged 55 and over are more likely to believe that the possibility should always be there, regardless of who requests it (27 per cent). Fewer Canadians (12 per cent, down one point) think medical assistance in dying should be abolished – a proportion that rises to 19 per cent in Alberta.

For a majority of the country’s residents (58 per cent, unchanged), the possibility should exist, but only under specific circumstances. Almost half of Canadians (48 per cent, up five points) say they are satisfied with the regulations that are currently in place in Canada to deal with the issue of medical assistance in dying, while 27 per cent (up one point) are dissatisfied, and 25 per cent (down six points) are not sure.

At this point, only an adult with a grievous and irremediable medical condition can seek medical assistance in dying in Canada. The survey asked Canadians if the practice should be expanded because of five different reasons.

Fewer than a third of Canadians would let adults in Canada seek medical assistance in dying due to poverty (27 per cent) or homelessness (28 per cent). However, more than two in five (43 per cent) would consent to a request related to mental illness. This is one of the pending challenges for the federal government, which has delayed a final decision for eligibility related to mental illness until March 2024.

Two other reasons fare differently.

Half of Canadians believe that disability (50 per cent) and an inability to receive medical treatment (51 per cent) would be proper justifications to seek medical assistance in dying. Canada’s youngest adults are way ahead of their older counterparts in believing that these two reasons are compelling enough for a person to request medical assistance in dying (60 per cent for disability and 57 per cent for unavailable medical treatment).

Another issue that has been discussed prominently is the role of parents.

When Canadians were asked what the appropriate punishment should be for a mother or a father found guilty of assisting a terminally ill son or daughter to die, fewer than half favour time behind bars. For eight per cent, this is a crime that merits a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. Just under three in 10 (29 per cent) think prison time is warranted, but at the discretion of a judge. For 14 per cent of Canadians, assisting a terminally ill son or daughter to die should be dealt with through a fine. About one in four (24 per cent) think there should be no penalty at all, while the rest (25 per cent) are undecided.

On this question, the generation gap is once again noticeable. The idea of parents escaping any sort of punishment after ending the life of their terminally ill child is endorsed by 32 per cent of Canadians aged 55 and over.

Across the country, 44 per cent of Canadians believe that people who help a person to commit suicide should be prosecuted. This feeling is more pronounced among those aged 18 to 34 (52 per cent) but drops markedly among those aged 55 and over (34 per cent).

Our survey shows that Canadians are not particularly distraught by the existence of legislation that allows medical assistance in dying. Opposition to the guidelines has not enhanced since January 2021, and most Canadians are eschewing the extreme sides of the debate: “never” or “when requested.”

The revelation from the data is in the generational differences that will be crucial for the policymakers who will try to figure out the future. Canada’s youngest adults are more likely to look at medical assistance in dying as reasonable in the case of life-altering events. Canada’s oldest adults have little reservations about forms of “assisted suicide” that are not legal right now.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co. Results are based on an online study conducted from April 22 to April 24, 2023, 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.