Moira McQueen Register file photo.

Bioethicist refuses to be pawn on assisted-suicide panel

  • September 9, 2015

OTTAWA - Catholic bioethicist Moira McQueen has refused an invitation to sit on a provincial/territorial panel developing guidelines for physician-assisted death because she feared being used to show that all sides of the issue were consulted.

In an e-mail to the Ontario attorney general office, she said her only contribution to the panel would be to “put forward my moral objection to the whole enterprise, and that clearly does not fit with the mandate.”

“Nor would I want to be part of the panel in order to make it look as though different points of view had been heard and considered before matters proceed. Implementation means that step has been done or omitted, and government has shown its hand.”

The panel, announced Aug. 14, named an advisory group to assist provincial legislatures in “the development of policies, practices and safeguards required when physician-assisted dying is legalized in their jurisdictions.” The Supreme Court has given the federal government until February to change the Criminal Code to regulate physician-assisted suicide.

“The whole thing about mitigating harm and safeguards are for the birds,” said McQueen, named last year to the Vatican’s theological commission. The expert in sexual ethics and moral decision-making points out that the safeguards for euthanasia in the Netherlands and other jurisdictions “evaporated very quickly.”

“When something is really seriously wrong in the first place — Catholic teaching would call it intrinsically wrong — how can you mitigate the harm?” she asked. “It’s so wrong, no matter what follows from it is also wrong. I would call it formal co-operation.”

McQueen is concerned that most people will “sit back and say that’s acceptable” when the government drafts so-called safeguards.

“We are not informed enough and will not be listening to people say safeguards are not working,” she said. “I’m concerned many ordinary lay people are being lulled into a false sense of security about mitigating harm.”

McQueen said she agreed wi t h th e approach of the Catholic Women’s League and other organizations that are calling for the use of the notwithstanding clause to override the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision last February that struck down some of the Criminal Code provisions against assisted suicide. She also supports the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition’s “Give us More Time” campaign and suggested Canada hold a referendum on the matter to ensure people are informed.

Sr. Nuala Kenny, however, sees things differently. The professor emeritus of bioethics at Dalhousie University and a retired pediatrician, with an expertise on end-of-life issues, will sit on the panel. She said she can be a voice on the inside that can help minimize the harm.

“My position is, it’s clearly that of minimizing harm,” Kenny said. “The harm has been done. After the Feb. 6, 2015 Supreme Court decision, assisted death, both physician-assisted suicide and physician-performed euthanasia are now legal.

“I decided to participate because I did not believe I had any other moral option,” said Kenny.

By joining the panel, Kenny said it gives opportunities to develop oversight mechanisms.

“We have lost the battle for those of us who believe assisted death is wrong,” she said. If nothing is done at all, on Feb. 6, 2016, “we would have in this country the most liberal assisted-dying policies in the world.”

“To keep saying we are opposed, that’s not good enough for me,” Kenny said.

The panel will be dealing with issues such as consent and how it is obtained, whether there can be advance consent and other matters. The panel will also have an impact on conscience rights for medical personnel and hospital directors, she said.

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