A decision by a Quebec Superior Court judge has opened the door for even more liberal treatment of assisted suicide laws. Photo of Palais de Justice in Montreal by Wikipedia

Pressure on the rise for end-of-life needs

  • October 12, 2019

OTTAWA -- The Catholic Church is doubling down on its efforts to encourage increased government and societal support for palliative care as the best way to help Canadians experience a “dignified natural death” as a barrage of Canadian court decisions continue to chip away at the safeguards surrounding assisted suicide in the country.

“There has been minimal (government support) for palliative care,” said Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon, the new president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). “There is a great need in Canada for more palliative care, be that of a religious nature or not.”

Gagnon said palliative care and assisted dying are not two equal options for Canadians nearing the end of life — one, palliative care, respects the dignity of human life, and the other, assisted dying, does not.

“You can assist a person in their last days of life to die with dignity in a supportive way that respects the importance of life (with palliative care),” Gagnon said. “The very notion of euthanasia is contrary to that.”

The Catholic Church has been at the forefront of advocating for more societal support for palliative care options in Canada.

The CCCB participated in 2018 public consultations on palliative care co-ordinated by Health Canada in response to the passing of Bill C-277 (the Development of a Framework on Palliative Care Canada).

One of the issues with palliative care is that while the federal government establishes a framework for health care in the country, it is the provinces that provide health services in Canada which has led to major differences in how palliative care is funded and delivered across the country.

The CCCB’s submission, developed with the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute among others, emphasized the importance of the spiritual care dimension in palliative care, and “strongly emphasized that palliative care is not to include euthanasia or assisted suicide, or what is being called in Canada ‘Medical Assistance in Dying’ (MAid),” a CCCB statement said.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said a CCCB ad hoc committee is working with other Catholic institutions and social agencies to develop informational tools and knowledge about palliative care that can be shared at the parish level and then potentially with school and health care providers.

“We have done a lot on this issue,” Smith said, adding that what the CCCB is trying to do is create easy to understand information at the local parish level about the Church’s position on the importance of palliative care.

“We want this to encourage them in the advocacy of palliative care,” he said, adding at this point the CCCB hopes to have palliative care kits available by 2021.

All of this is happening at a time when court decisions, most recently in Quebec this September, have been eroding the “foreseeable death” requirements for medically-induced suicide that has been part of Canadian law since the federal government allowed for medical-assisted death as a health care option in Canada following a previous Supreme Court of Canada decision.

On Sept. 11, Quebec Superior Court Judge Christine Baudouin struck down the requirement in federal law that a person’s death be “reasonably foreseeable” to qualify for euthanasia. She also struck down a similar clause in Quebec’s euthanasia law that requires an illness to be terminal. 

The Quebec government has indicated that it will not appeal the ruling, while the federal government has stated it is reviewing the ruling. On the election campaign trail, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would not appeal, while Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was in favour of appealing it, paving the way for a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, told The Catholic Register that the federal government had planned a five-year review of its euthanasia laws by June of 2020. “What’s the purpose of a review if courts think it is their purview to strike down portions of the law?” he said.

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