Of dilemmas and tensions: a qualitative study of palliative care physicians’ positions regarding voluntary active euthanasia in Quebec, Canada

Emmanuelle Bélanger, Anna Towers, David Kenneth Wright, Yuexi Chen, Golda Tradounsky, Mary Ellen Macdonald

Journal of Medical Ethics

Abstract

Objectives: In 2015, the Province of Quebec, Canada passed a law that allowed voluntary active euthanasia (VAE). Palliative care stakeholders in Canada have been largely opposed to euthanasia, yet there is little research about their views. The research question guiding this study was the following: How do palliative care physicians in Quebec position themselves regarding the practice of VAE in the context of the new provincial legislation?

Methods: We used interpretive description, an inductive methodology to answer research questions about clinical practice. A total of 18 palliative care physicians participated in semistructured interviews at two university-affiliated hospitals in Quebec.

Results: Participants positioned themselves in opposition to euthanasia. Their justifications were framed within their professional commitment to not hasten death, which sat in tension with the value of patients’ autonomy to choose how to die. Participants described VAE as unacceptable if it impeded opportunities to evaluate and alleviate suffering. Further, they contested government rhetoric that positioned VAE as a way to improve end-of-life care. Participants felt that VAE would diminish the potential of palliative care to relieve suffering. Dilemmas were apparent in their narratives, about reconciling respect for patient autonomy with broader palliative care values, and the value of accompanying and not abandoning patients who make requests for VAE while being committed to neither prolonging nor hastening death.

Conclusions: This study provides insight into nuanced positions of experienced palliative care physicians in Quebec and confirms expected tensions between an important stakeholder and the practice of VAE as guided by the new legislation.


Bélanger E, Towers A, Wright DK, Chen Y, Tradounsky G, Macdonald ME. Of dilemmas and tensions: a qualitative study of palliative care physicians’ positions regarding voluntary active euthanasia in Quebec, Canada. J Med Ethics 2019;45:48-53.