Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law founding director Margaret Somerville at the committee on physician-assisted dying. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Up to 12,000 Canadians could be killed annually

By 
  • February 10, 2016

OTTAWA - Bioethicist Margaret Somerville warned up to 12,000 people could be euthanized annually in Canada if a new law does not ensure euthanasia is exceptional, rare and used only as a last resort.

The founding director of the McGill University Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law told the Parliamentary committee on physician-assisted dying Feb. 4 she thought “Canadians would be extremely worried” and “upset if they thought there were between 11,000 and 12,000 Canadians being killed by lethal injections given by doctors every year.”

Somerville said her estimates are based on the rate of euthanasia deaths in the Netherlands and Belgium, where the practice has been legal for decades, at four per cent and 4.6 per cent of deaths annually.

“I could almost not believe it when I worked out those figures and I actually tried to go back and make sure they were correct,” she said.

Somerville appeared before the committee a day after Cardinal Thomas Collins urged lawmakers to respect the conscience rights of doctors and other health care workers. The archbishop of Toronto appeared before the committee Feb. 3 to make a representation on behalf of the newly formed Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience. The coalition represents the Toronto archdiocese, the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada (CMDS), the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute and Canadian Physicians for Life.

While stating the coalition’s strong opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia on the grounds that neither practice can be morally justified, Collins urged the committee to recommend that the inevitable government legislation grant health-care providers the right to refuse on conscientious grounds to participate in assisted death in any manner. He also made a plea for palliative care and support services for the vulnerable.

He told the committee conscience- rights protection should also be extended to health facilities that have a sincere moral objection to physician-assisted death. Additionally, health-care workers should be granted the legal right to never participate even indirectly in assisting the death of a patient by being compelled to refer patients to doctors or facilities which condone assisted death.

“It is clear that reasonable people, with or without religious faith, can have a well-founded moral conviction in their conscience that prevents them from becoming engaged in any way in the provision of assisted suicide and euthanasia,” said Collins.

“It is essential that the government ensure that effective conscience protection is given to health care providers, both institutions and individuals. They should not be forced to perform actions that go against their conscience, or to refer the action to others, since that is the moral equivalent of participating in the act itself.”

The cardinal also made a case for a cross-Canada network of palliative care facilities to provide end-of-life services so people have viable options to physician-assisted death.

Somerville told the committee that both euthanasia and assisted suicide are “inherently wrong and should remain criminally prohibited,” but was willing to offer some recommendations to “limit the risks and harms of legalized euthanasia.”

Any framework to allow it should respect the constitution and the Charter of Rights and aim to “do the least harm to the value of respect for life,” she said, which is not just a religious value.

Like Collins, Somerville also stressed the need for more palliative care, saying any person requesting euthanasia must be offered “high quality palliative care and pain management.”

The committee began considering the testimony Feb. 5, and will present its report Feb. 26. Last year’s Supreme Court decision that struck down the blanket ban on assisted suicide gave the government 12 months, since extended to 16 months, to pass laws to regulate how assisted-death will be implemented in Canada.

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In a presentation made Feb. 3 in Ottawa to the Special Joint Committee on Physician-assisted Dying, Cardinal Thomas Collins, appearing on behalf of the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience, opposed physician-assisted suicide and urged lawmakers to protect the conscience rights of health-care providers. Here is a text of his submission.

For centuries, faith-based organizations and communities have cared for the most vulnerable in our country, and they do so to this day. We know what it is to journey with those who are facing great suffering in mind and body, and we are committed to serving them with a compassionate love that is rooted in faith and expressed through the best medical care available.

We were brought together by a common mission:

• To respect the sanctity of human life, which is a gift of God;
• To protect the vulnerable; and,
• To promote the ability of individuals and institutions to provide health care without being forced to compromise their moral convictions.

It is because of this mission that we cannot support or condone assisted suicide or euthanasia.

Death is the natural conclusion of the journey of life in this world. As the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes wisely observed long ago: “the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to the God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) Death comes to us all, and so patients are fully justified in refusing burdensome and disproportionate treatment that only prolongs the inevitable process of dying. But there is an absolute difference between dying and being killed. It is our moral conviction that it is never justified for a physician to help take a patient’s life, under any circumstances.

We urge you to consider carefully the drastic negative effects physician-assisted suicide will have in our country:

Killing a person will no longer be seen as a crime, but instead will be treated as a form of health care. According to the Supreme Court, adults at any age, not just those who are near death, may request assisted suicide. Following the lead of some European countries whose experience with assisted suicide and euthanasia we disregard at our peril, the Provincial-Territorial Expert Advisory Group has already gone beyond the restriction of assisted suicide to adults, and has proposed that children be included. The right to be put to death will, in practice, become in some cases the duty to be put to death, as subtle pressure is brought to bear on the vulnerable. Those called to the noble vocation of healing will instead be engaged in killing, with a grievous effect both upon the integrity of a medical profession committed to do no harm, and upon the trust of patients in those from whom they seek healing.

Even those doctors who support this legalization in principle may be uneasy when they experience its far reaching implications.

The strong message from the Supreme Court is unmistakeable: some lives are just not worth living. We passionately disagree.

In light of all this, it is clear that reasonable people, with or without religious faith, can have a well-founded moral conviction in their conscience that prevents them from becoming engaged in any way in the provision of assisted suicide and euthanasia. They deserve to be respected.

It is essential that the government ensure that effective conscience protection is given to health care providers, both institutions and individuals. They should not be forced to perform actions that go against their conscience, or to refer the action to others, since that is the moral equivalent of participating in the act itself. It is simply not right or just to say: you do not have to do what is against your conscience, but you must make sure it happens.  

Our worth as a society will be measured by the support we give to the vulnerable. People facing illness may choose to end their lives for reasons of isolation, discouragement, loneliness or poverty, even though they may have years yet to live. What does it say about us as a society when the ill and vulnerable in our midst feel like burdens? Often, a plea for suicide is a cry for help. Society should respond with care and compassionate support for these vulnerable people, not with death.

Proper palliative care to date is not available to the majority of Canadians. It is a moral imperative for all levels of government in our country to focus attention and resources on providing that care, which offers effective medical control of pain, and even more importantly, loving accompaniment of those who are approaching the inevitable end of life on earth.

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