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Canadians and the Ethics of Euthanasia

by Rick Blizzard

Americans continue to grapple with the issue of doctor-assisted suicide as the federal government appeals its recent legalization in Oregon. As Oregonians challenged current social standards regarding euthanasia, Gallup took a look at the attitudes of residents of their neighbor 250 miles north.

Canadian Attitudes Toward Doctor-Assisted Suicide

In response to a Gallup poll conducted in January*, 79% of Canadians said they believe that doctors should be allowed to end the life of a patient whose life is immediately threatened by an incurable disease that causes the patient great suffering -- the highest percentage in favor since Gallup began asking the question in 1995. Only 19% of Canadians said they oppose the concept.

Such strong Canadian support for doctor-assisted suicide seems to hinge on whether the question specifies that the patient has an immediately life-threatening disease. When the question is changed to say that the patient has an incurable disease that is not immediately life-threatening, only 61% of Canadians say they believe that a doctor should be allowed to end the patient's life. However, this percentage is also at its highest level since Gallup began asking the question, and up from 54% in 2000.

In drafting potential laws or developing organizational policies after laws are adopted, a key concept for consideration is a patient's expected survival time with an incurable disease. What if the incurable disease is not immediately life-threatening, but imposes severe pain or a non-responsive physical state? How certain are we that a disease is immediately life-threatening? Do we discount a miracle cure? These are tough ethical questions, and Canadian poll results suggest that consensus will be difficult to achieve.

*Results are based on 1,000 telephone interviews with adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 15-20, 2002. For results based on the total sample of adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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