The "Call for Conscience" campaign guides parishioners to contact provincial election candidates in their riding so they can ask about their position on conscience rights for doctors and for faith-based health care institutions. CNS photo/Art Babych

'Call for Conscience' calls for action against assisted suicide

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  • January 23, 2018

As the groundwork for a lawsuit is being laid to challenge the right of Catholic health care institutions to opt out of assisted suicide, Ontario’s bishops and the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience are mounting their second annual Call For Conscience campaign.

Through February, the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario will ask parishes to hold “Sign-Up Sundays,” inviting parishioners to add their e-mail addresses to a list so they can receive a link to material on the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience website.

Using the website, parishioners would be guided to contact provincial election candidates in their riding so they can ask about their position on conscience rights for doctors and for faith-based health care institutions.

Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews are also part of the coalition and will participate in the campaign.

When Catholic hospital CEOs say they have a right to opt out of assisted dying they’re making an assumption that hasn’t been tested in court, Dying With Dignity Canada executive director Shanaaz Gokool told The Catholic Register.

“There will come a point in time — I can’t say when and where because I don’t know honestly right now — that this question will be addressed in a courtroom,” Gokool said.

Dying With Dignity has been running an extensive campaign under the slogan “Voice Your Choice” which invites people to tell stories of difficulties they’ve experienced or know about in accessing assisted dying. Stories of delayed or inadequate transfers to willing hospitals are being used to pressure provincial and territorial governments into mandating so-called medical assistance in dying (MAiD) even in objecting facilities.

“We’re asking governments to uphold the rights of some of the most vulnerable residents in their province or territory and ensure that they can access medical assistance in dying wherever they happen to be,” Gokool said. “Certainly we feel publicly-funded facilities have a special onus because they receive taxpayer funds.”

Constitutional lawyer Albertos Polizogopoulos doesn’t think much of the legal reasoning Dying With Dignity might bring to a courtroom.

“They certainly have an argument. I don’t know whether they have a winning argument,” he said. 

The idea that “bricks and mortar don’t have a conscience” hasn’t really held up in front of actual judges in Canadian courts, Polizogopoulos said.

“The case law seems to be going in a direction that recognizes that corporations or institutions or bodies of individuals may benefit from religious freedom.”

Other Charter freedoms — of expression, of the press, freedom of assembly — have been granted to Canadian corporations and unions. There’s no reason to believe corporate bodies can’t also have religious freedom, said the litigation partner with Vincent Dagenais Gibson LLP.

Polizogopoulos is more than doubtful about the Dying With Dignity claim that Canadians have a Charter right to MAiD.

“There is no Charter right to assisted suicide. I don’t see an obligation by a private entity delivering a government program. If that was the case, all hospitals would have to provide abortion. They don’t.”

The 2015 Supreme Court decision in the Loyola High School case against the government of Quebec over teaching the provincial religion curriculum suggests that if a corporation is founded with an explicitly religious ethos, then it has religious freedom rights, said Polizogopoulos.

Rights have to be balanced, said Gokool. When one party is frail, elderly and vulnerable, the law should bend over backwards to accommodate patients lying on their deathbed, she said.

“A court process would be about understanding how rights can be balanced, which is exactly why we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Gokool.

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