A majority of medical specialists in Quebec favour legalizing euthanasia and say the controversial practice is already occurring despite its prohibition, a poll suggests.
In a survey of more than 2,000 physicians in the province, the Fédération des médecins specialistes du Québec found that three in four of its members say they would favour euthanasia as long as it took place within clear legal guidelines.An equal percentage wants the House of Commons to adopt a law.
The findings, released yesterday, add the voice of Quebec's medical specialists to a divisive debate over the right to end another person's life to relieve their suffering. Recent polls suggest support for legalizing euthanasia is higher overall among Quebeckers than among other Canadians.
The specialists' federation say that even if it's not legal, euthanasia already occurs day to day in the province as patients and families confront end-of-life decisions.
An overwhelming 81 per cent of the doctors told pollsters they have seen euthanasia practised in Quebec. In most cases, the federation said, it involved the suspension of medical treatment accompanied by sedation.
A palliative-care physician in Montreal who reviewed the findings says the survey's methodology and wording may have inflated support for the practice of medical termination of life. Patrick Vinay, former dean of medicine at the University of Montreal, says he considers support for legalized euthanasia premature.
There are ways to alleviate a patient's suffering with actions that are "not irreversible," he said in an interview.
"Euthanasia is irreversible. Is it the only way to respond to intolerable suffering? No, it's not," said Dr. Vinay, who practises at Notre Dame hospital.
He acknowledged that he has seen the administration of high doses of morphine to accelerate a patient's death. "It's bad medicine," he said.
By releasing their findings, the doctors are thrusting the emotional debate into the forefront. Euthanasia is banned under the Criminal Code, so changes to end-of-life medical practices would require the approval of federal politicians.
If Canada approved legal euthanasia, the surveyed doctors said, more than half would be willing to practise it themselves; only 20 per cent said they would not.
But the medical specialists cautioned that decisions about life-ending medical practices could not be taken without the input of patients and family.
"Medical specialists did not send a message of unbridled openness about euthanasia," said Gaétan Barrette, president of the federation. He said physicians don't want to "play God," and family and patients played a crucial role in end-of-life decisions.
Quebec Health Minister Yves Bolduc has said he is open to debating the issue. Yesterday, he responded to the doctors' findings.
"Let's debate it as a society and if possible, try to find a consensus," he said.
The survey was taken as Quebec's College of Physicians prepares to issue its position on the issue. The group has already issued a draft report that urged euthanasia be considered appropriate in some cases.
The medical specialists' survey by Ipsos Descarie was conducted in late August and early September and has a margin of error of 1.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The response rate was 23 per cent.