CALGARY - The issue of doctor-assisted suicide generated plenty of debate, but little consensus at the Canadian Medical Association's annual convention Monday.
"I do think that Canadians and Canadian physicians are actually quite deeply divided on this issue and we certainly heard in our deliberations that there seemed to be many different viewpoints about how we should approach this," said association president Dr. Anna Reid, after a panel discussion on the issue.
"This is the reason we're having the debate — society is leading the debate and we feel as physicians we need to actually start finding out what our members feel."
Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose, who spent the day at the convention, acknowledged that doctor-assisted suicide is an emotional issue for many Canadians, but she said her government isn't planning changes to laws that make euthanasia and assisted suicide illegal in Canada.
"You know all of us think about the issue because we have elderly grandparents and elderly parents and I think it is on the mind of many because Quebec has introduced their legislation," Ambrose said.
"Parliament voted in 2010 to not change its position on this issue so, at this time, we don't have any intention of changing our position. It's not surprising that these kinds of debates are happening within the physician community."
The Quebec government plans to hold public hearings in the fall on its controversial right-to-die legislation, which was tabled earlier this year. The bill essentially outlines the conditions necessary for someone to get medical assistance to die.
The legislation followed a landmark, bipartisan committee report tabled in 2012 that suggested doctors be allowed in exceptional circumstances to help the terminally ill die, if that is what the patients want.
The federal government says it will review Quebec's legislation, setting the stage for a possible showdown between Ottawa and the province's sovereigntist government. Quebec argues that delivery of health-care services lies within provincial jurisdiction and maintains it is on firm legal ground with the bill — the first of its kind in Canada.
The president of the Quebec Medical Association was involved in Monday's debate, saying his province is ahead of the rest of the country on the issue.
"Medical aid in dying is a medical service that's within the continuity of life care. It's aimed at helping the patient die under strict conditions at the patient's request," said Dr. Laurent Marcoux.
"It's not legalizing euthanasia for us — it's something new. It's a way to care for the patient at the end of his life."
Former senator Sharon Carstairs said euthanasia and assisted suicide have been studied at the Senate level with little success in developing a consensus.
"What we did come to a very serious conclusion about was that Canadians are not dying well," Carstairs said.
"They were dying in intractable pain, they were attached to machines they didn't wish to be, they were poorly served by physicians who quite frankly didn't know what a good death was."