By Patrick B. Craine

October 14, 2009 ( – A survey commissioned by the Quebec Federation of Medical Specialists (FMSQ) suggests that 75% of its members would 'certainly or probably' favor the legalization of euthanasia within a clearly defined framework. 

However, according to one prominent Canadian anti-euthanasia activist, the survey results are questionable because the survey also reveals the doctors' confusion over what euthanasia actually is.

A private members bill is currently before Parliament seeking to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide.  Bill C-384, brought forward by Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde (La Pointe-de-l'Ile), received its first hour of debate on October 2nd.  The debate generated little interest among the MPs; only two spoke in favor, with six speaking in opposition.  A second hour of debate is expected in November, which will be followed shortly by a vote after second reading.

The recent survey was conducted by Ipsos Descarie by internet and mail from August 28th to September 15th.  The response rate was 23%, with a margin of error of 1.9%, 19 times out of 20.

According to FMSQ President  Dr. Gaétan Barrette, the survey dealt strictly with euthanasia, leaving aside the separate question of assisted suicide.  The survey is well-timed, however, leading up to the vote on a bill that would legalize both euthanasia and assisted suicide in one shot.

The survey also asked whether palliative sedation should be considered a form of euthanasia, with 48% answering “Yes” and only 46% saying “No.”

Based on this result, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) executive director Alex Schadenberg said, “I am absolutely convinced that a large number of physicians in Quebec are unsure of what euthanasia is or is not.”

“The fact is,” he points out, “that palliative sedation is not euthanasia.”

“Euthanasia is the direct and intentional cause of death, whereas palliative sedation is the sedation of a person in order to eliminate their suffering,” he continues.  “The proper use of palliative sedation does not cause death, but rather it eliminates suffering.”

Schadenberg points out, further, that the Quebec College of Physicians made a similar error in July when they announced the conclusion of their ethics committee that euthanasia should be legalized. 

At the time, College secretary Dr. Yves Robert told the Globe and Mail, “The question here is to decide whether a drop in dosage or an increase in dosage constitutes a criminal act. … We may go as far as to recommend that in certain cases, where the pain is unbearable, the amount of analgesic required could correspond to a form of euthanasia.”

This statement, says Schadenberg, “confused the use of large doses of analgesics with euthanasia. The proper use of large doses of analgesics is not euthanasia unless the physician has clearly done so outside of the accepted guidelines with the intention of causing death.”

While the FMSQ survey results suggest support for euthanasia only within a “clearly defined legislative framework,” Schadenberg questions whether appropriate protections can ever be ensured.  “The fact is that with negative attitudes towards people with disabilities, and [given that] the incidence of elder abuse continues to significantly rise in our culture, the question is: can there ever be adequate safeguards to protect the vulnerable?”

Announcing the results of the survey at a Montreal press conference, Dr. Barrette compared the fight for euthanasia in Canada with that for abortion.  He said that doctors' opinions follow the lead set by the public.  “Society was ahead,” he said. “Doctors came after, and then governments legislated much later after [the] Superior Court had to rule [on the issue].”

Based on the survey Barrette is arguing that doctors need “complete freedom” in serving their patients.  “This survey brought out one basic fact,” he said in a press release, that “regardless of the type of legislative model or guidelines that might be put in place by the relevant government authorities with respect to the practice of euthanasia, doctors must always retain complete freedom to assist a patient in this manner.”

Following the conclusion of their ethics committee, the Quebec College of Physicians is expected to call on the government this fall to legalize euthanasia.

While the College has maintained that their support for euthanasia does not include assisted suicide, Schadenberg is not convinced.  Responding in July, he said, “We should not be surprised that the timing of the Quebec College of Physicians decision will take place at approximately the same time as Bill C-384 [to legalize assisted suicide] goes to a Second Reading vote.”

See related coverage:

Canadian Parliament Debates Euthanasia Bill

Quebec Physicians Propose Legalized Euthanasia

3 Out Of 4 Quebecers Want Euthanasia Legalized