Assisted death report threatens existence of faith-based health care

  • February 26, 2016

OTTAWA - Should the federal government accept the recommendations of its special committee on assisted death, it will threaten the existence of Canada’s faith-based health care institutions, says the Coalition for HealthCARE.

The report, released Feb. 25, recommends legislation much broader than the Supreme Court’s Carter decision and would open the doors to a wide-range of situations where assisted death would be legal in Canada, including a recommendation that would force health care institutions to take part in assisted death.

“This is a grave threat to a large number of faith-based health care institutions across the country, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, nursing homes and hospices,” said Larry Worthen, coalition member and executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, in a release. “Forcing these members, and leaders of these facilities, to act in this way would be trampling on their constitutional right to freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed under the Charter.

“In our view, effective referral and participating in assisted death are morally and ethically the same thing. This would force people of conscience and faith to act against their moral convictions and threaten the very core of why they became physicians, which is to help to heal people. This is discrimination. It is unnecessary. No other jurisdiction in the world requires physicians to refer for assisted death.”

“I have no words to describe how sad and alarming this report is,” said Catholic Organization for Life and Family director Michele Boulva. “If the Trudeau government develops a bill following these lines, it will be the worst legislation in the world — a huge societal failure.

“Apart from allowing some citizens to kill others — even children and people living with mental illness — this report shows absolutely no respect for the moral convictions and the Charter-protected rights of conscience of physicians and other health care workers,” she said. “It forces them to refer to another physician if they refuse to kill a patient themselves.

“The same thing goes for all health care institutions who get public funding, including Catholic facilities: the report says that they must offer ‘medical aid in dying.’ This is called discrimination. Where is our freedom? And why should we pay for this abomination with our tax dollars?”

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, added that religious institutions cannot take part in “killing their patients,” something that is “always morally unacceptable.”

The special joint Parliamentary Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying’s report also recommends allowing physician-assisted death for those with psychiatric conditions, opens the way for children under 18 to be euthanized, allows for advanced directives so non-competent persons can be euthanized provided they made the directive when competent and recommends forcing physicians to make an effective referral. It does not recommend any further defining of the Carter decision’s words “grievous and irremediable.” It recommends minimum safeguards of two independent physicians determining the patient qualifies for a physician-assisted death. It also recommends requests for euthanasia must be made in writing, supported by two independent witnesses.

The report does recommend Health Canada establish a Secretariat on Palliative and End-of-Life Care towards the end of establishing a national palliative care strategy. It also recommends national strategies for mental illness and dementia.

Euthanasia opponents are dismayed the report recommends legislation much broader than the Supreme Court’s ruling in February 2015 that gave the federal government a year to rewrite its legislation on assisted death. The Court later gave the government a four-month extension, until this June.

“There are many dangerous recommendations in this report,” said Schadenberg. Of special concern are the recommendations on oversight, he said. The only oversight happens after the two doctors who have approved the assisted death send in their reports.

“It’s an after-death reporting system,” he said. “The doctor who kills you will send in a report after you’re dead. You have to trust the doctor who kills you.”

Schadenberg pointed to the lack of objective criteria in assessing “intolerable suffering.”

“It means it’s pretty wide open,” he said, and will lead to more instances where assisted death will be permitted.

“Once euthanasia for minors is allowed, as well as for those with dementia based on an advanced directive, there will be arguments for the euthanasia of children and for incompetent adults, Schadenberg warned.

The Catholic Civil Rights League said in a news release the committee’s “majority recommends the practically unfettered and immediate implementation of death on demand.”

“The League fears for the elderly, the disabled and those with mental health afflictions, that they will be the subject of increased pressure to take their own lives, rather than gain access to treatment or palliative care,” the League said in a statement said. “In every other jurisdiction, the scope of assisted suicide and euthanasia widens, and instances of egregious circumstances of premature death prevail.”

The League stressed forcing physicians to make an “effective referral” is “an infringement of the Charter right of freedom of conscience and religion.”

The Catholic Health Association, however, was more conciliatory.

“It is too soon to know which of the 21 recommendations may be part of any final legislation,” said a statement from association president Michael Shea. “As the federal government carefully considers the report and begins to draft legislation, we will continue to work in humility and openness with all stakeholders to navigate this issue.”

Schadenberg said if the recommendations concerning referrals becomes part of the legislation, “many good doctors will leave Canada.”

“It’s about time our religious leaders make it clear we will not be complicit in such a law,” Schadenberg said.

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