September 2, 2013

The Canadian Medical Association's (CMA) general council has voted not to change its policy against euthanasia and assisted suicide – for now.

During meetings in Calgary Aug. 18-21, the CMA general council defeated by a narrow margin a resolution that would have called on the federal government to launch a wide-ranging public consultation on "doctors killing patients as a medical act."

Instead, delegates supported resolutions in favour of palliative care.

McGill University Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law professor Margaret Somerville said she is "relieved the CMA didn't endorse euthanasia." But she warns she does not believe the issue is "permanently settled."

"Like what happened with same-sex marriage, those supporting it will keep coming back until they succeed," she said. "They don't have anything to lose by doing so."

"I believe support for euthanasia is, in part, a failure of our imagination and moral intuition and that this is not true of the doctors who oppose it," Somerville said. "I think they can imagine what it involves, especially for them, and for their hospitals."

"Would you want to work in an institution in which your colleagues are killing people?" she asked.


"I think it fundamentally changes the doctor-patient relationship in general, not just for the doctors and patients who undertake euthanasia and that affects all physicians and, I might add, patients."

The resolutions concerning euthanasia came from Quebec CMA delegates at the same time the Quebec government has introduced Bill 52 that would decriminalize euthanasia by declaring it to be "medical aid in dying."

Health is a provincial matter, while the Criminal Code, which outlaws euthanasia as a form of homicide, is federal.

This challenge to federal jurisdiction prompted journalists to question Health Minister Rona Ambrose on euthanasia after her speech to the CMA Aug. 19.

Ambrose said the Harper government has no interest in reopening the euthanasia debate.

"All of us think about the issue because we have elderly grandparents and elderly parents, and it is, I think, on the mind of many because Quebec has introduced their legislation," she said.

"As you know, Parliament voted in 2010 to not change its position on this issue, so at this time we don't have any, any intention of changing our position."

Anti-euthanasia groups welcomed Ambrose's words.

"The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) is heartened by Minister Rona Ambrose's assurances that the government has no intention of reopening the euthanasia and assisted suicide debate," said COLF director Michele Boulva.


Boulva said she hoped the federal government would "act decisively" against Quebec's challenge to the Criminal Code through Bill 52.

The CMA, the only national association for physicians, has taken a different approach from the Quebec College of Physicians, which has endorsed euthanasia in exceptional circumstances.

While the CMA rejected calls to reopen its 2007 policy against euthanasia and assisted suicide, delegates did endorse several resolutions in favour of palliative care.