This is the first installment of our five-part series of What Might Be 2016’s Most Influential Story in which we’ll look back at the news-making headlines of last year that will carry their influence into the 2016.

There is little more controversial than the right to die and that controversy can be big news. Last February the Supreme Court of Canada legalized physician-assisted suicide for patients suffering from debilitating and painful conditions. The move made headlines with more than 500,000 shares on social media, making it 2015’s most shared news item according to the Globe and Mail.

Wanda1Managing the public advocacy campaign behind these efforts is Wanda Morris, CEO of Dying with Dignity, who overcame her opposition by reframing the issue and building bridges with her traditional opponents.

“The media has always called assisted death a controversial issue and what we hear from members of parliament is that they fear a backlash if they support it,” said Morris. “But we know a majority of Canadians believe we’re right.”

Her polling stated that 85 percent of Canadians support doctor-assisted death, though she points out that this has not always been the case. Five years ago she had to fighting to get on the agenda at a public hearing held by three members of parliament who didn’t want to listen to a word she or her organization had to say.

“Everyone else on the agenda got 20-minutes to speak and they all went over their time,” said Morris. “I got up and the MPs had their arms crossed, disinterested, and asked me if I was done after eight (minutes).”

Frame an issue well and win.

Fighting against Dying with Dignity are groups like Physicians Against Euthanasia, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, and the Canadian Society of Palliative care whose polling indicated that 69 percent of its members opposed assisted suicide.

Morris looks at polling like this and points to the word driving respondent’s negativity: suicide.

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“Language is really important and how you frame it (an issue), is how you answer it,” said Morris.

Supreme CourtOpponents use “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” as a substitute for “assisted dying”, but the Supreme Court did not. In its ruling the court delineated a difference between assisted suicide and assisted dying, stating that suicide is still illegal but for some people assisted death is not. The phrase “assisted dying” is used 61 times, almost 3x more often than “assisted suicide”, in the ruling.

The lesson here is be steadfast on the terms used to describe your brand or issue.

Listen to your opponents as well as your allies.

By understanding the position your opponents hold and creating the opportunity for a dialogue, you can move the goal-posts farther than through adversarial efforts. Such a dialogue helped Dying with Dignity build a relationship with former Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who suffered a car crash in 1996 that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He helped craft a private member’s bill to legalize the practice and put the bill in front of Parliament in 2014.

stephen“While other bills failed to gain traction, his voice and work on the issue made a substantial difference,” said Morris.

Fletcher’s bill received the support of dozens of Conservative members of Parliament  something unheard of before. The bill died with the end of the last Parliament but he continues to speak in favour of assisted-dying.

Keep a dialogue open with your opponents.

Despite opponents targeting the ethics of assisted-dying, Dying with Dignity worked to build a dialogue with those that would listen. This includes disability advocates who have fears that legalizing assisted dying will force their members, those who are severely disable, into a situation where they are persuaded to end their lives instead of seeking treatment. To start the discussion, Morris created a disability advisory group made up of to bring its opponents into the discussion.

“For years we’ve tried to connect with these organizations and explain our position,” said Morris. “Just recently they have begun to reach out to us.”

More action to come in 2016.

Despite the hold up on Fletcher’s bill, the court ruling requires the government to pass legislation governing assisted dying. This is already creating a debate about access to palliative care in Canada and the quality of healthcare services in Canada.  With as much as 11.6 per cent of Canada’s GDP going toward healthcare costs, this debate has just begun.

Next week in the second entry into What Might Be 2016’s Most Influential Story we will look at how climate change skeptics and proponents square province against province and industry against instead.

About James Rubec

James Rubec is a data geek, a former public relations lead and journalist with a love of content and advocacy. Ask him anything @JamesRRubec and be sure to follow @Cision_Canada

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