Dr. Catherine Ferrier

Despite challenges, fight against assisted suicide goes on

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • April 16, 2016

MONTREAL – When Quebec’s doctors were blindsided by their professional association and its support for assisted suicide, Dr. Catherine Ferrier knew she had to spring into action.
“We didn’t see it coming. We knew it was out there but it was on the margins. Three-quarters of the population was against medically assisted suicide. The legislation kept dying” every time a politician would introduce a motion in favour of assisted suicide, said Ferrier, who has been one of the leaders in the fight against medical aid in dying for the past seven years.

But then the College des medecins threw its unilateral support behind doctor-assisted suicide, catching its members by surprise. It was 2009 and this led the deceptively formidable founding president of Quebec’s Collectif des medecins contre l’euthansie (the Physicians Alliance Against Euthansia) to get involved at the grassroots level in combatting the college’s position.

“The college took a position and didn’t ask its membership. So when the Quebec National Assembly began committee hearings on its proposed Bill 52, I helped write a position paper saying we didn’t agree,” said Ferrier, who was trained in family medicine but specializes in geriatric care at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.  

When the committee re-defined assisted suicide as health care, Ferrier, along with palliative care specialist Dr. Patrick Vinay, Dr. André Bourque, Dr. Marc Beauchamp and others joined forces to form a grassroots citizens’ group that would articulate the case against medically assisted suicide. It was called Vivre dans la dignité — Living With Dignity — a name coined by its first executive director, Linda Couture, as a positive counterpoint to the push for so-called dying with dignity.

Ferrier became involved in the fight against assisted suicide out of concern for her patients.

“The elderly are the most vulnerable,” she said.

When the committee report came out in favour of euthanasia and the mainstream media accepted its recommendations without much question, Ferrier, Bourque, Beauchamp and others knew they had to get others on board to help the fight.

They recruited dozens of doctors to add the medical heft of the Physicans Alliance Against Euthanasia to the grassroots work being done by Living With Dignity.

Bourque was the driving force of the organization but when he died suddenly of a heart attack during the campaign, “everything really landed in my lap,” said Ferrier. “Calling up people I don’t know and asking them to do things is not really my thing.”

Although Alex Schadenberg had started the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition in English Canada, in Ferrier’s view,  “It wasn’t enough for Quebec. (The coalition) couldn’t speak the language and didn’t really understand the culture.”

Despite the group’s efforts, Bill 52 has enshrined in Quebec the right to assisted suicide. And the federal government will soon introduce legislation that must be passed by early June to replace the provision of the Criminal Code against assisted suicide that was struck down in 2015 by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Though the activism has cut into her life, Ferrier, is not prepared to throw in the towel.  

“Some people are discouraged,” she admits. “Some of our people have lost hope. But once you have decided what to fight for, you have to keep on fighting, keep on lobbying, at the political level.”

Ferrier said none of her patients has asked to be euthanized, but understands it is only a matter of time. When one does, she said she will refuse to assist in their death and will also refuse to obey the Quebec law requiring her to recommend the patient to another doctor who will.

“I won’t send someone to their death. I would tell the patient to fire me as their doctor rather than refer them. I will not violate my conscience,” she said.

“Under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms I don’t have to do it. The Charter guarantees me freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. Both guarantees are spelled out clearly in the same line,” said Ferrier.

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)

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