File photo of Vanacouver's St. Paul's Hospital, 2010. Photo/courtesy of Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

Catholic health care pressured to join in euthanasia process

  • October 5, 2016

OTTAWA – The archbishop of Vancouver has written to a local health authority to oppose a threat to make compliance with assisted suicide requests mandatory at all its health institutions, including Catholic hospitals and palliative care centres.

In a Sept. 27 letter to the Fraser Health Authority Board, Archbishop J. Michael Miller warned such a move would “undermine the contribution of palliative care at the very time it needs support and development.”

“What a cruel dilemma to offer palliative care patients, compassionate care or death, as equally viable options,” he wrote.

His letter followed an incident gaining public attention that involved a man whose assisted suicide request was denied at a Vancouver Catholic hospital.

Last August, Ian Shearer, 84, was transferred from St. Paul’s Hospital to another institution after the Catholic hospital refused to assess his eligibility for assisted suicide. His family told media he experienced extreme pain as he was moved to an institution to fulfil his request.

The incident has prompted the local health authority to consider forcing all palliative care units and hospices to provide euthanasia and assisted suicide.

“Such a decision will also create a terrible conflict of interest for palliative care workers who see their departments as sacred places to alleviate suffering and honour human dignity,” Miller wrote.

Instead, they will “watch vulnerable people they care for offered an economically expedient shortcut in the form of a lethal injection” and may be “forced to participate in medically assisted suicide contrary to their ethical principles.”

Catholic Health Association of Canada president Michael Shea said as a national policy Catholic institutions will “respond respectfully and compassionately to requests for physician-assisted suicide and try to stay engaged with the persons, to find out the nature of the person’s request.”

“Catholic health care is rooted in the sacred dignity of the person,” he stressed. “We have had this long-standing tradition of compassionate care that neither prolongs dying nor hastens death.

“I think it’s clear that Catholic health care will not undertake the procedure,” he said. “The question is how does it get handled. That varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, depending on how health authority has set up processes around the procedure.”

For Catholic health care, “it’s a matter of principle for us,” and part of the foundational “basic matters” of Catholic health care, he said.

The Vancouver incident spawned a spate of mainstream media reaction, including an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen accusing Catholic hospitals of “letting down” terminally ill patients. While the Citizen said individual doctors should not be forced to euthanize patients, “individual choice” of patients is “paramount” and tax-funded Catholic institutions must find a physician willing to do so on site.

“Forcing those in pain to leave the site in order to obtain even an end-of-life assessment is simply inhumane,” the Citizen argued.

Shea argued publicly funded health care providers offer a variety of services to the public, but no one facility offers every possible service. “People are transferred every day for different services.”

Larry Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, said what’s at stake is a constitutional right under Section 2 of the Charter “that allows organizations to be able to operate according to their values and principles and to be able to create a space where people can feel safe, where they don’t have the threat of wrongful death.”

Worthen rejects the public-funding argument for imposing one standard regarding euthanasia. “The government raises money from a diverse population who have very many different attitudes and perspectives on this controversial issue,” he said. “I think it is the responsibility of government to make sure people have facilities that they need and want for all differing perspectives.”

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