Canadian survey spotlights life and death issues

Published July 11, 2012

There has been increasing debate in Canada about whether individuals have the right to decide when and how they die when they become terminally ill. Photo: Blend Images

A majority of The United Church Observer magazine readers, most of them church goers, are more liberal in their views than the general Canadian population when it comes to ethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, a survey has shown.

A significant majority (82%) of readers who participated in the poll said they support euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide when life support is disconnected at the request of a terminally ill patient. Only 48% of the general population gave their approval. However, only 14% of readers and 12% of non-readers expressed support for a family member ending a relative’s life when he or she is unable to give consent and no prior instruction was given.

The results were from a survey conducted in March by The Observer and its website. The survey was designed to “explore contemporary ethical issues as they relate to life and death.” The United Church Observer was the official publication of The United Church of Canada for 60 years, until it became a financially and editorially independent corporation in 1986. It reports on national and international issues of faith, justice, ethics, daily living and pop culture, according to its website.

The survey shows that readers “overwhelmingly support medical interventions to end the suffering of people who are so sick and injured that they have no hope of recovering,” said an editorial by the magazine’s editor, David Wilson. Wilson noted that dozens of readers had included a personal note “describing their experience of watching a loved one suffer needlessly before passing away.” He said it was possible that the huge gap between readers and the general population on this issue was due to the higher number of older respondents among the magazine’s readers. “Older people have more experience with end-of-life realities,” he said, adding that, “surely that’s an argument for paying closer attention to what they say, not discounting it.”

Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are both illegal in Canada, but there has been increasing debate about whether individuals have the right to decide when and how they die when they become terminally ill.

Wilson said that as Canada’s population ages, end-of-life issues will gain more prominence and Canadians are likely to look to the United Church for leadership since it has “a reputation for taking on difficult issues that others would rather ignore.”

But, Wilson said, The United Church – Canada’s largest Protestant denomination – has been “all but silent” on these issues for over a decade now. “For the sake of its own aging membership, for the sake of an aging nation whose values it helped to shape, the United Church needs to embrace end-of-life questions as a pastoral and prophetic priority.”

The survey also showed:

* 83% of readers and 69% of non-readers believe the decision to terminate a pregnancy should be left to the woman; 9 % of readers and 19% of non-readers said there should be laws prohibiting/restricting abortion regardless of a woman’s wishes;

* A majority of readers (80%) and non-readers (60%) approve of abortion when the pregnancy is a result of a sexual assault, but only 1% of readers and 4% of non-readers support it when the baby is “not the sex that the mother prefers.” A majority of readers (77%) and non-readers (57%) support abortion when a woman’s life is threatened by the pregnancy. Only 12% of readers and 11% of non-readers support abortion as a form of birth control.

*33% of readers and 30% of non-readers said life-sustaining treatments should be administered when “vegetative patient is five months pregnant.” Only 7% of readers and 13% of non-readers said doctors could insist on life-sustaining treatments even if a vegetative patient has asked in advance not to receive them.

About 900 readers and 1,000 English-speaking non-readers (described as being “less likely to be involved in organized religion”) aged 18 and above participated in the survey designed and administered by Jane Armstrong Research Associates and The Observer staff.

For a summary of the survey, click here.


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