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Family sues over Vancouver Catholic hospital’s euthanasia policy

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  • June 19, 2024

The parents of a terminally ill woman who was transferred to another facility to be euthanized after St. Paul’s Hospital refused to allow the procedure on its premises are suing the provincial government and Providence Health Care, the Catholic health-care provider that operates St. Paul’s.

The couple’s lawsuit says their daughter’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms were violated by the B.C. government’s religious exemption to the provincial Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) policy.

The lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court on June 17 wants B.C. to remove the religious exemption.

Providence spokesperson Shaf Hussain said in a statement that the court filing is being reviewed. 

“Providence is committed to providing compassionate care to all patients and residents.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix issued a statement saying he respects all parties’ perspectives but can’t comment on the matter while it is before the courts. 

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition said in a statement it is examining the case and will apply to intervene.

St. Paul’s routinely arranges for the transfer of patients who request euthanasia to non-Catholic facilities, but the decision by the hospital to transfer Sam O’Neill last summer ignited public and media reaction after her family drew attention to the case.

Health Minister Adrian Dix addressed the situation at the time, saying hospital transfers for MAiD are rare, occurring in about 0.2 per cent of cases. He said St. Paul’s Hospital acted according to protocol and praised its contributions to the provincial health system, saying the overall relationship with faith-based healthcare providers is beneficial.

Media extensively covered the issue, with stories quoting critics calling for the B.C. government to reconsider the Master Agreement with the Denominational Health Association, which allows religious health providers to follow their ethical guidelines. 

Further fuelling the debate, Dying with Dignity Canada released a poll to indicate strong public support for MAiD. Health Canada also announced $560,000 in funding for a project to gather Canadians’ experiences with MAiD. Dying with Dignity is listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, a survey last year by the Angus Reid Institute, in collaboration with Cardus, showed the majority of British Columbians support the right of religiously affiliated healthcare facilities’ right to reject providing Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) and transfer patients seeking euthanasia to other institutions. 

Fifty-eight per cent agreed with transferring patients, while only 24 per cent said these hospitals should be forced to provide MAiD against their beliefs.

Nationally, a majority in all regions except Quebec said transferring a patient who wants MAiD should be sufficient. In Quebec, 47 per cent believed transferring the patient is adequate while 35 per cent said the hospital should be mandated to provide MAiD onsite. The survey also found that 61 per cent of Christians and 56 per cent of those from other faiths supported transfers, while 54 per cent of non-religious individuals agreed. However, 70 per cent of Canadians said doctors who object to MAiD should be required to refer patients to another willing doctor.

In November, the B.C. government announced a plan to provide euthanasia and assisted suicide at St. Paul’s Hospital – by making it available beside the hospital. The Ministry of Health announced it was taking over property beside the hospital to create a “clinical space” where St. Paul’s patients requesting euthanasia can receive it without having to be transferred to another setting.

 In the announcement, the ministry said it had directed Vancouver Coastal health authority to take land next to the hospital and “establish a clinical space and care setting for VCH use.” 

The government said it is updating protocols for discharging and transferring St. Paul’s patients to the new site where “Medical Assistance in Dying” can take place. 

The government said the “clinical space” will be staffed by Vancouver Coastal Health staff and be connected by a corridor to St. Paul’s. Patients who want MAiD will be discharged from the hospital and transferred to the care of the regional health authority. The new site is expected to be completed in August 2024.

Providence Health Care, the Catholic health care provider that operates St. Paul’s, said at the time that the ministry’s announcement respected Providence’s position of not allowing MAiD to be performed within the walls of a Catholic facility or setting.

The ministry said in an announcement at the time, “While faith-based organizations may opt not to offer MAiD services at their facilities, they are expected to work with regional health authorities to ensure the option is available to patients who choose it.”

Archbishop Miller said the directive “respects and preserves Providence’s policy of not allowing MAiD inside a Catholic health care facility,” and the new patient discharge and transfer protocols are consistent with existing arrangements for transferring patients from its other hospice and palliative care sites, St. John Hospice, May’s Place. “Providence Health Care and St. Paul’s Hospital will continue to provide compassionate care, in accordance with Catholic teachings, and support the physical, emotional, spiritual and social al needs of every patient we serve,” he said.

The government’s announcement came just hours before the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement reiterating its opposition to euthanasia in Catholic hospitals. Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller noted that the bishops had already drawn a line in the sand at their September plenary meeting when they stated unanimously that MAID would not be delivered at Catholic hospitals. 

The new statement formalized that stance by saying the bishops “unanimously and unequivocally oppose the performance of either euthanasia or assisted suicide (MAiD) within health organizations with a Catholic identity.”

The bishops said, “any efforts by governments or others to compel such facilities to perform MAiD” would be “in violation of Catholic teachings” and would “deeply betray the identity of these institutions as Catholic and would not be in keeping with the Church’s moral teachings on the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person.” Patience system

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