December 9, 2015 8:31 pm
Updated: February 11, 2016 12:58 pm

Canadian doctors say physicians will be ready to provide assisted death

WATCH ABOVE: The legalization of physician assisted death next year will mark a massive change to the way doctors in Canada practice medicine. Organizations like the Canadian Medical Association say this is something they saw coming long before last winter's supreme court ruling and insist that when new laws are put in place, the medical community will be ready.


CALGARY –  As a former Alberta provincial court judge, Pat Lawrence had a deep respect for the law, but his interest in last year’s constitutional challenge of Canada’s law against physician-assisted suicide was more than professional. With his own health failing, the outcome of Carter vs. Canada became personal.

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“It was Parkinson’s disease symptoms that really made his life a challenge,” Lawrence’s daughter, Gillian, said.  “Over a four to five-year period, he increasingly had difficulty walking, he started to lose his ability to write, and he couldn’t carry on a conversation.”

READ MORE: Life and Death Decisions Part I – Alberta family awaits right-to-die legislation after traumatic death

One night over dinner, Lawrence told his family he had made a decision: he did not want to continue to suffer from the disabilities related to his illness–he wanted to die. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of his right to make that choice in February, but the option would not be available to Canadians for months. He felt time was running out.

“He knew that he couldn’t wait until February 6 of 2016.”

So last summer, the Lawrence family took a final trip together. They travelled to Switzerland, the one place in the world Pat Lawrence could legally access doctor-assisted death.

“While the trip was difficult, it was also a wonderful family time,” Lawrence’s daughter, Pamela, said.

“It was dignified and it was peaceful. He was my dad until the very moment that he died.”

Still, his daughters said Lawrence had one regret: he had not been able to die the way he wanted to at home in Canada.

For other Canadians, the option will be available soon. Last winter’s ruling called for Ottawa to put in place new right-to-die legislation by February. Although the federal government has asked the courts for more time, doctors groups have been busy making sure the medical profession is ready when the new laws come into effect.

“The public needs to really recognize that this is a huge change for the medical profession,” Dr. Jack Blackmer, vice-president of medical professionalism for the Canadian Medical Association, said.

“Since society has asked us to take on this responsibility, we want to make sure we get it right.”

READ MORE: Life and Death Decisions Part II – Right-to-die opponents say canadians need better palliative care 

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and provincial regulatory bodies like the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) say they recognize not all doctors will be willing to help patients die. An advice document, approved this month in Alberta, says no physicians will be forced to participate in the practice, but doctors will need to make sure patients have the information they need about all available options.

“If I, as a physician, choose not to assist my patient, I need to make sure my patient has access to (physician-assisted death) and is not disadvantaged from gaining access to any legally available procedures,” Dr. Trevor Theman, registrar for the CPSA, said.

When the laws come into effect, the CMA says there will be doctors willing to participate. An August 2014 CMA member survey found 27 per cent of respondents would offer the service if and when doctor-assisted death becomes legal.

“That really amounts to tens of thousands of Canadian doctors saying even though this might not be what we asked for, out of compassion and care for our patients who may be suffering, we will step forward to provide these services.”

© 2015 Shaw Media

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