Ray PenningsJust because politicians and activists are gung-ho about expanding medical assistance in dying (MAID) doesn’t mean all Canadians are so enthusiastic.

If anything, Canadians would tell the politicians it’s time to slow down and broaden the discussion on Parliament Hill.

A parliamentary committee recently rushed through witness testimony on Bill C-7. The bill would expand access to MAID to include people with disabilities and chronic illnesses – those whose death is not foreseeable – while undoing most of the safeguards that were in place.

New polling by the Angus Reid Group, commissioned by Cardus, has found that while about a third of Canadians asked (less if you remove Quebec respondents) are damn-the-torpedoes MAID enthusiasts, about one in five oppose it.

That leaves about half of Canadians broadly supportive of MAID, but with several significant concerns about the breadth and speed of its expansion.

Almost seven in 10 Canadians polled say decision-makers should seriously consider that expanded access to MAID might cause people with disabilities or elderly patients to feel “more pressure to choose death in order to avoid being a burden on others.”

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More than seven in 10 agree that MAID’s expansion could push people with mental health issues like depression to choose death instead of dealing with their condition’s underlying causes.

Around the same proportion wants Parliament to take into account a United Nations report critical of Canada’s poor MAID safeguards for people with disabilities and their lack of access to viable MAID alternatives.

In April 2019, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, reported “worrisome claims about persons with disabilities in institutions being pressured to seek medical assistance in dying, and practitioners not formally reporting cases involving persons with disabilities” in Canada.

More than six in 10 people polled are concerned the public health-care system will start to ignore long-term care and chronic disease in elderly people as MAID becomes more available.

Bill C-7 does nothing to address these serious concerns, which deserve decision-makers’ attention and consideration.

These are the concerns of mainstream Canadians – many who would generally support MAID, but still fear the health-care system will favour MAID and therefore pay less attention to the difficult job of relieving patients’ suffering through palliative care.

Added to all this is the question of conscience rights, which the federal government has ignored in both rhetoric and the language of Bill C-7.

For a variety of reasons related to conscience or religious belief, various hospitals, hospices, seniors’ homes, and the health practitioners working in them, object to participation in MAID.

Battles over whether and how MAID can happen in facilities that consider the practice deeply immoral – and threatening to other residents and patients – aren’t theoretical.

Authorities exonerated a B.C. doctor for sneaking into an Orthodox Jewish nursing home to terminate an elderly resident in defiance of the home’s rules.

A hospice in B.C. has endured an all-out assault by the provincial government, which cut off funding for the facility because of its conscience-based refusal to provide MAID on its premises.

The Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons makes no provision for its members’ conscience-based objections to participation in MAID.

Rather than provide clarity and leadership by recognizing that conscience rights are included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the federal government has remained silent.

That’s not where Canadians are at.

A full 55 per cent of Canadians polled (more than six in 10 when you consider only Canadians outside Quebec) agree that religiously-based hospitals should be free to refuse to provide or participate in MAID.

And only about a quarter of all Canadians polled believe governments should cut off public funding for such facilities.

The numbers are similar when Canadians consider nursing homes and hospices.

For Canadians polled, supporting MAID doesn’t imply a minimalist approach to the charter-protected freedoms of conscience and religion.

Quite the opposite – those Canadians are strongly in favour of robust protections.

Yet we’ve seen no leadership from Parliament on this question.

Canadians have legitimate and significant worries about how far MAID will go, what expansion means for society as a whole, and how health-care provision will change because of it.

MPs need to stop and take into account what Canadians are saying as they consider Bill C-7.

Ray Pennings is executive vice-president of the think-tank Cardus.

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