Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital Photo by Bob Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons

Winnipeg Catholic hospital draws euthanasia battle lines

  • September 20, 2017

All summer long Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital has been in the eye of a storm over its right as a religious health care institution to refuse to provide euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The hospital’s owners have gone to the lengths of remaking the board of directors to ensure the “Catholicity of the hospital,” but opponents say the battle is not over.

Shanaaz Gokool, the CEO of the pro assisted-suicide organization Dying with Dignity, makes no bones about her campaign to force Catholic hospitals, hospices and nursing homes to either offer assisted suicide or allow it on their premises.

“We are campaigning to ensure that people have access to medical assistance in dying wherever they happen to be,” said Gokool. “We just want to ensure that basic and essential health care is offered in publicly-funded health care facilities who have a mandate to provide services to the community that they’re in.”

Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon is equally adamant.

“The effort at St. Boniface Hospital was to draw that inevitable red line,” he told The Catholic Register. “We can’t cross that. Once you cross that, you’re ending the whole faith-based foundation of the hospital.”

The issue has been simmering since a May 29 board meeting at the hospital. The 16-member board was set to meet a regional health authority requirement to pass guidelines on precisely how it would respond when patients request a doctor’s help to commit suicide. The proposed policy was clear that St. Boniface would not induce any death, but neither would it interfere with a patient’s right to seek one. Information about the procedure would be available and patients who requested an assisted death would be transferred promptly to a consenting institution.

But prior to the vote, an amendment was tabled. It proposed that a Winnipeg Regional Health Authority representative be allowed to end the life of a patient on hospital premises in rare and extreme circumstances where a transfer might be risky.

The amendment caused the board to split evenly until the board chair cast the deciding vote in favour of permitting assisted suicide in exceptional cases.

The next day, the Catholic Health Corporation of Manitoba (CHCM), which owns the hospital, began a process to add 10 new board members and request a re-vote. That second ballot rescinded the first vote so that no assisted suicide is allowed at the hospital.

St. Boniface’s final policy on so-called Medical Assistance in Dying comes up for a vote at the hospital’s Sept. 25 board meeting.

Founded by the Grey Nuns in 1871, St. Boniface is a teaching institution and Manitoba’s second largest hospital.

The CHCM owns several other health care facilities across the province.

“We are Catholic organizations with a very clear mission,” said Dan Lucier, CHCM CEO. “Everyone was agreed we’re opting out. Unfortunately in this case there was an amendment.”

Lucier doesn’t deny that complex situations will arise given the hospital’s advanced cardiac care and palliative programs, but allowing doctor-assisted killing on the premises would compromise the Catholicity of the hospital, he said.

“We’re going to be really good in working with our partners and forecasting this to ensure that safe and timely transfer (occurs),” Lucier said.

Since euthanasia became legal last year, St. Boniface has transferred four patients to other hospitals so they could receive an assisted death.

For the archbishop, Catholics aren’t just claiming a right to opt out of assisted dying, but also a right to participate in health care.

“We have a right to faith-based health care,” he said. “Not every hospital has to provide every service.”

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