Élisabeth-Bruyère Health Centre, Ottawa Photo from Wikimapia

Storm erupts over hiring of pro-euthanasia doctor at Catholic hospital in Ottawa

  • February 21, 2019

OTTAWA – Despite granting privileges to a palliative care physician who supports Canada’s euthanasia law, the Catholic identity of Elisabeth Bruyère Hospital is not threatened, said Ottawa’s archbishop.

Archbishop Terrence Prendergast was responding to a controversy that erupted Feb. 14 on social media regarding Dr. James Downar, who was appointed on Oct. 1 as head of the Division of Palliative Care at the University of Ottawa. Due to an affiliation agreement with Elisabeth Bruyère Hospital (EB), Downar also received privileges at the Catholic institution. 

“Recognizing that EB cannot and does not allow Medical Aid in Dying or euthanasia on its premises, Dr. Downar subscribes to the Catholic Ethical Code in his service at Bruyère and has committed to not publicly espousing aid in dying,” Prendergast wrote in an e-mail. 

He stressed the hospital is committed to “excellence in palliative care and to its being in complete conformity with Catholic ethical principles.”

Downar divides his time between the Bruyère’s palliative care unit and the Intensive Care Unit at one of the campuses of The Ottawa Hospital. In 2016, he gave a speech at an event sponsored by Dying with Dignity, a pro-euthanasia organization, on what the new so-called Medical Aid in Dying law means for Canadians.

“It is very disappointing and troubling that the Bruyère hospital has let the fox into the henhouse,” said Debbie Duval, National Capital organizer for Campaign Life Coalition. “The beauty of the mission of love, service and compassion that Elisabeth Bruyère began all those years ago is in sharp contrast to the mission of Dr. Downar, who has promoted euthanasia.” 

Amy Porteous, vice president of public affairs at Elisabeth Bruyère, said the hospital’s position on euthanasia is unchanged. 

“As a Catholic health care organization, we will not provide MAiD,” she said in an e-mail. “However, we will continue to support and care for patients who request MAiD.”

Duval hopes that Downar “will respect the Catholic nature of this hospital.”

“People expect more from the Bruyère,” Duval said. “People expect to go there and be taken care of and not to be pressured into ending their lives.”

Prendergast pointed out Dr. Jill Rice is Medical Chief of Palliative Care at Bruyère. She will work with Downar “to advance the integration and quality of palliative care services across the region.”

“In turn, Dr. Downar is head of palliative care at both The Ottawa Hospital and at the University of Ottawa (TOH),” he said. “Because of a tripartite arrangement among TOH and uOttawa and EB, Dr. Downar has visiting clinical privileges at Bruyère.”

Previously, Dr. Jose Pereira was the head of palliative care at the University of Ottawa, The Ottawa Hospital and  Bruyère. Pereira, who is co-founder and Scientific Officer of Pallium Canada, is a staunch opponent of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

“The EB realized that Dr. Downar could not be appointed head of palliative care at its complex and so discussions took place such that he would have visiting privileges at EB but would not be head of palliative care,” said the archbishop. “This he agreed to, along with his subscribing to the Catholic Ethical Code while at EB.”

Some on social media called for people to withdraw financial support from the hospital until Downar is removed. But Prendergast said the hospital remains worthy of both moral and financial support. 

“Several priests in my residence regularly visit those receiving palliative care at Bruyère and are laudatory of the wonderful job being done there and to which they contribute,” he said.

The Bruyère is Ottawa’s first hospital, founded by Mother Elisabeth Bruyère of the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa in 1845 in what was then called Bytown. Mother Bruyère was declared venerable in April 2018, putting her on the first step of the path to sainthood. 

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