Catholic health-care providers don't expect the federal government to force institutions to participate in assisted suicide. Photo/Pixabay

Catholic groups believe conscience rights will be respected on assisted suicide

By 
  • June 1, 2016

Despite Bill C-14 providing no conscience protection for institutions, Catholic health-care providers expect governments will respect their right to opt out of assisted suicide.

“The fact that it’s not in Bill C-14 doesn’t mean that you can look at it as an interpretation that therefore conscience doesn’t count,” said David Nash, chair of the Catholic Health Association of Ontario. “You have to look at it from the point of view that the federal government doesn’t want to step on provincial toes.”

Nash spoke as the final vote on Bill C-14, the federal government’s assisted suicide legislation, was set to be held in the House of Commons. The bill passed May 31 and was sent to the Senate.

The history in Ontario would suggest provincial authorities will respect the Catholic legacy in health care and avoid pushing Catholic hospitals, hospices and nursing homes into either providing or allowing assisted suicide on their premises, said Nash, a London, Ont., lawyer.

“We’re confident that the province will continue — and that’s the important word, continue — to respect conscience,” Nash said. “Because they have respected that with respect to abortion and they’ve respected that with respect to reproductive-care issues. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t continue to respect that.”

The bill must receive royal assent in the Senate before it becomes law. Members of the Senate committee reviewing the bill have already asked for amendments, including recognition of conscience rights for religious institutions. So the Senate may send the bill back to the Commons.

In any event, the bill is unlikely to become law before the deadline set by the Supreme Court of Canada, which struck down Canada’s blanket ban on assisted suicide on Feb. 6, 2015. 

“We’re at risk of not meeting the June 6 deadline,” Health Minister Jane Philpott told The Canadian Press. “Having said that, it is my hope that we can see this piece of legislation put into effect at the very soonest possible date.”

But NDP justice critic Murray Rankin predicted that even if the bill is passed, “it will be tied up in legal challenges for years to come.”  

While Nash doubts it will come to civil disobedience, he is confident Catholic institutions will not be pushed into providing suicide services.

“I don’t think that a Catholic facility will ever voluntarily participate in assisted death,” he said.

As a lawyer, Nash is frustrated by some interpretations of the Supreme Court’s Carter decision.

“If you look at the decision, it is an extremely narrow decision,” he said. “It does not go as far as people are saying it goes.”

While the Court strikes down sections of the criminal code that would punish doctors in some circumstances for helping a patient commit suicide, the Supreme Court does not mandate that any doctor or health-care institution must provide the service, said Nash.

“It doesn’t focus on the action. It focuses on criminal law and says that if you do this you won’t be subject to criminal law sanctions — that’s all,” he said. “The Supreme Court has spoken and people are putting words into their mouths.”

Catholic hospitals, nursing homes and hospices aren’t only focused on protecting their own conscience rights. They are concerned with protecting vulnerable people who may be put at risk by federal statute.

Nash would also like to see the fight shift to better funded, more widely accessible palliative care. 

“If more money was put into palliative care you would have fewer people who are looking for an end-of-life situation,” he said.

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