McGill University ethicist Margaret Somerville believes there is no chance the new Liberal government will invoke the nothwithstanding clause to allow more time to craft an assisted suicide law. Catholic Register file photo

Bishops not preaching to the converted on euthanasia

  • October 30, 2015

The Catholic fight to keep doctors from administering lethal drugs to patients who say they want to die continues as the deadline nears for a Supreme Court of Canada mandate that physician-assisted suicide become legal as of Feb. 6, 2016.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and its agency for life and family issues have each made submissions to the expert panel examining how to legislate doctor-approved killing in the wake of the court’s decision in Carter v. Canada. The Catholic Health Alliance of Canada, representing most of the Catholic hospitals, nursing homes and other medical services, was scheduled to appear before the expert panel in Winnipeg in late October, after The Register’s press deadline, as the panel resumes hearings after a hiatus during the federal election.

At the same time, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba has released a draft policy on physician-assisted death which may end up providing some part of a template for eventual federal legislation on the issue.

Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau promised his government would meet the Feb. 6 deadline for a new law to regulate the practice.

In their submission, the bishops recommend against trying to craft such legislation in just over three months.

“The ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada puts at risk the lives of the vulnerable, the depressed, those with physical or mental illness and those with disabilities. The one-year period given by the Supreme Court is far too short for such a fundamental change in our laws to enter into force,” reads the bishops’ submission.

The bishops reiterate their preference for Parliament to invoke the “notwithstanding clause” to give the country another five years to consider its options.

That’s simply not very likely, argues conservative legal and ethics expert Margaret Somerville. She estimates the chances a Conservative government would have used the notwithstanding clause at “0.5 per cent” and the prospect of a Liberal government doing the same at “zero.”

CCCB president Bishop Doug Crosby isn’t bothered by the political calculation on the notwithstanding clause.

“We know that that’s an option. It’s there. They could do that,” he told The Catholic Register. “We’re suggesting that this would be a good time to do it and a good opportunity to use it.”

The real problem with the bishops’ submission to the expert panel is its long string of quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, said Somerville.

“Who are you trying to convince? Are you trying to convince yourself? Are you trying to convince your fellow believers? Or are you trying to convince people who disagree with you?” asked Somerville. “The vast majority of people don’t think that (the catechism) is what’s going to influence their opinion about what is right or wrong.”

Crosby said there was no debate and no doubt about including 10 long quotes from the catechism in the five-page submission to the expert panel.

“If they are consulting us they want to know what we think. This is what we think,” Crosby said. “I’m not the law maker. What we’re doing is presenting the teaching that we consider to be important.”

The Catholic Organization for Life and Family submission to the expert panel warns of a slippery slope.

“The elderly and the vulnerable risk being pressured to consider the option of an early death,” said COLF executive director Michele Boulva. “The so-called right to die could soon become a duty to die.”

Given the Supreme Court’s decision, the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada hopes to minimize the damage and protect Catholic doctors, nurses and institutions, said CHAC president Michael Shea.

“Assisted suicide, ending someone’s life, is fundamentally not in keeping with our values and our ethics,” Shea said. “Having said that, our interest is in trying to make sure, to try to reduce or minimize the harm that causes, given the Supreme Court decision, to various groups.”

The Supreme Court ruling acknowledges the right of doctors to refuse to be involved in physician-assisted death. The CHAC argues that same right of conscience and belief applies to institutions.

Given the Supreme Court’s earlier decision to allow the Jesuits’ Loyola High School in Montreal to teach a provincially mandated ethics and world religions course through a Catholic lens, the CHAC has a good legal argument for freedom of religion in institutions, said Somerville.

“Our desire isn’t to negotiate the way in which to provide a service we fundamentally disagree with,” said Shea. “Our interest is to ensure that if there’s going to be a service that we fundamentally disagree with that it respects, that it minimizes the harm that is created to others who don’t subscribe to it.”

That includes vulnerable patients who feel they have become a burden and a drain on society or their families. Shea wants to be able to assure future patients in Catholic hospices, hospitals and nursing homes that the suicide option is off the table.

Along with the CHAC proposal to protect Catholic health care institutions from any obligations to accommodate assisted suicide, the alliance is promoting Catholic involvement in palliative care.

“We’re very interested in palliative care. Catholic health care organizations have been leaders in palliative care for many years and continue to do that,” he said.
The Manitoba physicians’ college draft policy for doctors doesn’t concern itself with institutions, but does claim to protect the conscience rights of Catholic and other objecting doctors.

“A physician who elects not to provide or participate in physician-assisted dying for any reason is not required to provide it or participate in it or refer the patient to a physician who will provide physician-assisted dying to the patient,” reads the draft policy.

This goes further than the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons’ policy on conscience rights and human rights legislation, which does require referrals for abortion, contraception and other contentious medical interventions even from objecting doctors.

While Somerville thinks the Manitoba proposal is better than the recently passed Ontario policy, it worries her that the Manitoba policy would require objecting physicians to “provide the patient with timely access to another member (doctor) or resource that will provide accurate information about physician-assisted dying.”

“I think that’s a problem,” said Somerville, whose latest book, Bird on an Ethics Wire, is largely dedicated to the debate over assisted suicide. “What they (doctors) want is no complicity at all in facilitating this.”

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