OTTAWA — A group representing several thousand Christian physicians is expressing concern that a new federal law on physician-assisted death could force them to perform, or refer patients to a physician who will perform, legalized euthanasia.
Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, and Larry Worthen, the executive director of Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada testified Wednesday evening before a parliamentary committee on physician-assisted dying.
The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the law against assisted suicide in 2015. (Photo: Shutterstock)
The committee has until the end of the month to report back on how the federal government should respond to a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that Criminal Code provisions that prevented anyone from aiding or abetting someone in committing suicide breached an individual’s Charter rights. The court gave the federal government one year to pass new legislation but recently extended that deadline to June.
While the Supreme Court said it did not propose to compel physicians to provide assistance in dying and said legislatures needed to reconcile patients and physicians Charter rights, Collins and Worthen both said they believe legislation is needed to protect physicians who do not wish to patients end their lives.
“We do not agree with assisted suicide and euthanasia. We think implementing them in the country is not a good path to go on, it will cause great harm,” Collins told The Huffington Post Canada’s Althia Raj on Sirius satellite radio’s “Everything Is Political.”
“What we are particularly stressing is the need, because there are very many people in our country who have profound reasons for not being able to go down that path … that their conscience rights … be protected.”
'Great pressure' on doctors with religious objections
Collins said he was concerned that shortly after the Carter v. Canada decision came down, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario had instituted a policy that placed “great pressure” on physicians who have personal or religious objections to euthanasia to make referrals to other doctors.
The College’s interim policy states:
“Where a physician declines to provide physician-assisted death for reasons of conscience or religion, the physician must do so in a manner that respects patient dignity. Physicians must not impede access to care, even if that care conflicts with their conscience or religious beliefs.”
There is already pressure put on people, subtle and more profound."
Collins said the College’s message that is even if you don’t want to do it, make sure it happens.
“Well, doing it and making sure it happens are morally equivalent. And we think that is just not right. There is already pressure put on people, subtle and more profound,” the cardinal said.
“We just cannot do that and stay true to our belief,” said Worthen, whose group represents approximately 5,000 medical personnel. “It is resulting in doctors’ considering moving from the province of Ontario to try to be able to practice according to their conscience.”
Last month, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia also issued interim guidelines noting that physicians have the right to decide whether or not to perform physician-assisted dying. While the College said physicians who object to physician-assisted death are not obligated to make formal referrals, it also said physicians were “required to provide an effective transfer of care for their patients by advising patients that other physicians may be available to see them.”
“If we have a truly diverse and richly inclusive community, it is very important that people of conscience not be forced into doing things..."
Worthen said he hoped the committee would put provisions in place that respect the constitutional protection of conscience and freedom of religion, so that his organization’s members could practice “medicine according to our beliefs” right across the country.
“People who are deeply involved in helping others should not be pressured into doing that [physician-assisted death] or into making it happen indirectly. It is just not right,” Collins added. “If we have a truly diverse and richly inclusive community, it is very important that people of conscience not be forced into doing things…. That is not a better Canada.”
Also on HuffPost:
A look at some jurisdictions where right-to-die laws are in place. (Information courtesy of The Canadian Press)
A right-to-die bill was adopted last year, the first legislation of its kind in Canada. The law, scheduled to go into effect in December, stipulates that patients would have to repeatedly ask a doctor to end their lives on the basis of unbearable physical or psychological suffering. They would have to be deemed mentally sound at the time of the requests. The law, however, is being challenged in court by two Quebec-based groups on the grounds that it undercuts sections of the Criminal Code that outlaw assisted suicide and euthanasia. The federal government has expressed its opposition to the legislation but is named as a defendant in the court challenge because it is responsible for the Criminal Code.
The results of a referendum made Oregon the first U.S. state to make it legal for a doctor to prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient of sound mind who makes the request. However, doctors cannot administer the life-ending drugs and the patient must swallow them without help. Patients must state three times -- once in writing -- that they wish to die, and those statements must be made at least 15 days apart. They must also obtain a concurring opinion from a second doctor that they have less than six months to live and are of sound mind. The law took effect in late 1997, and through June, 2014, just over 800 people had used the law.
The state became the first in the U.S. to allow a person's right to die through legislation rather than through a court decision or a referendum result. Vermont's law, which took effect in May 2013, is closely modelled on the system in Oregon and uses the same safeguards. Patients must state three times, including once in writing -- that they wish to die. They must also obtain a concurring opinion from a second doctor that they have less than six months to live and are of sound mind.
In January 2014, a judge ruled that competent, terminally ill patients have the right to seek their doctors' help in getting prescription medication if they want to end their lives on their own terms. The state's attorney general is appealing the ruling, and a decision on whether it will be upheld is expected later this year.
A referendum saw the state enact right to die legislation in 2008. As in Oregon, patients with less than six months to live must administer the doctor-prescribed lethal medication on their own. According to a government report, 549 people applied for the right to die between 2009 and 2013. Of those, 525 actually took their own lives.
In 2009, the state's Supreme Court ruled that Montana's public policy supports mentally competent, terminally ill patients being able to choose aid in dying. Physicians are allowed to prescribe medication that patients must administer themselves. More detailed legislative bills have been introduced in the state but have not passed. The court ruling still stands today, but data about its usage is not available.
A law passed in 1942 forbade anyone from helping someone kill themselves for selfish reasons. As a result, people arguing that they are assisting with a suicide for unselfish motives are not considered to be committing a crime. Suicides can be assisted by people other than doctors and no medical condition needs to be established. Switzerland is the only country that allows foreigners to travel there for the purpose of ending their own lives.
In the Netherlands, euthanasia is legal under specific circumstances and for children over the age of 12 with parental consent. In Europe, patients don't have to prove that they have a terminal illness -- establishing unbearable suffering is usually sufficient. Dutch doctors are allowed to perform euthanasia if a patient whose unbearable suffering has no hope of improvement asks to die with a full understanding of the situation. A second doctor must agree with the decision to help the patient die.