Religious freedom advocates shocked suicide/euthanasia doctor cleared

A Vancouver doctor who snuck into this care home and gave a lethal injection to a resident, despite the care home's policies against assisted suicide, is not facing negative consequences from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. (BC Catholic file photo - CCN)

By Agnieszka Ruck, B.C. Catholic

With files from Deborah Gyapong, Ottawa, Canadian Catholic News

[Vancouver – CCN] – Religious freedom and anti-euthanasia advocates are alarmed that there will apparently be no negative consequences for a doctor who sneaked into a Vancouver Jewish nursing home to euthanize a resident, despite the care home’s Orthodox Jewish beliefs.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. has dismissed an official complaint against Dr. Ellen Wiebe, who in 2017 delivered a lethal injection on the premises of Louis Brier Home and Hospital, in contravention of its rules against assisted suicide.

In its ruling, the college said “the patient had consented” and “Dr. Wiebe had met all the requirements for provision of MAID [Medical Aid in Dying.]”

Louis Brier resident Barry Hyman, 83, was suffering the effects of lung cancer and a stroke when he asked for his life to be medically ended in 2017. His family asked the home for permission, but staff refused to allow the procedure on site.

Wiebe and an assistant entered the home, carrying lethal drugs and other equipment concealed in bags, and ended Hyman’s life with family present and behind closed doors.

Wiebe told media she expected the decision to be in her favour. “I had done the right thing and I trust our College of Physicians to recognize that.”

But the care home is disappointed with the decision. David Keselman, Louis Brier’s chief executive officer, told media the college “disregarded many of the elements that were in the complaint.”

“We have quite a number of Holocaust survivors in the building. This is a huge concern… as this came out, it created a very significant level of anxiety and chaos, especially for those individuals.”

Bob Breen, executive director of B.C.’s Denominational Health Association (of which Louis Brier is part), told The B.C. Catholic societies have a right to bar people who violate their policies.

“Physicians like Dr. Wiebe who ignore the policies related to MAID in faith-based homes and sneak in to perform them anyway seem to be devoid of any understanding of the moral trauma that is caused to staff and residents,” he said.

“I find this incredulous behaviour in a physician who has an oath to ‘do no harm.’ Do no harm does not mean you can do whatever you want to everyone else as long as your patient gets what they want. While Dr. Wiebe has the legal right to perform MAID on any patients who meet the criteria, she should have been censured for her unethical behaviour of violating Louis Brier’s rights.”

Breen was unable to obtain the college’s confidential report on Wiebe’s case, so he said it’s difficult to comment on it.

“As far as I can see, they did not examine the ethical issue of Dr. Wiebe entering Louis Brier secretly to perform the procedure, with full knowledge that it was against the policies of the society.”

He added that the decision does not necessarily mean the college condoned her behaviour, but only found it not illegal.

Dr. Will Johnston, a family physician and president of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition-BC, said, “There needs to be some kind of pushback.”

“The medical regulatory community in general is having trouble balancing the interests of the community against aggressive, radical autonomy, a doctrine followed by people like Ellen Wiebe,” said Johnston.  “It should be obvious that when someone wants to be killed by the state and this has been allowed by law, that they should not have the right to specify the exact location.”

“Euthanasia is such a serious affront to medical ethics that the legislations which allows it does so by making exceptions to the usual murder charges,” he said. “It does not have anything to say about the rights of a suicidal person to be killed in a specific location.”

Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition said Wiebe’s actions were clearly unethical.

“She broke the trust of other people living their Jewish faith in that institution,” he told Convivium. He worries about the implications of the college’s decision for other faith-based institutions.

“Say you’re running a Catholic institution now, where you’ve said, ‘We don’t want this on the premises; this is a euthanasia-free zone.’ Well, Dr. Wiebe has basically told people: ‘too bad, we’re going to do it anyway,’” he said. “One of my fears is that all this is going to be leading to forced change.”

Schadenberg said people with religious beliefs or traumatic memories are not the only ones that should worry about the effects of assisted suicide on a community.

“It’s not about being religious or not religious. It’s about living my life as a human being. It’s about answering the question of how I help and protect other human beings,” he said. “You don’t have to believe in God. You can believe whatever you want. But you have to look at the real nature of the human person, how we live our lives creating interdependent community with others.”

When news first broke of Hyman’s death in January of 2018, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, called the situation “disturbing.”

“Faith-based institutions, whether schools or health-care facilities, represent communities which have the right to determine the values that govern their mission,” he said.

“Physician-assisted suicide, in the words of Pope Francis, is ‘false compassion,’ and any attempt to coerce facilities into practising euthanasia is an assault on freedom of conscience and religion.”

Barry Bussey, director, legal affairs for the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, said the college’s decision has implications for other denominations, calling it “a dagger at the heart of the Catholic hospital system as well.”

The decision is a “further indication of the absolute disregard for the rights of religious organizations to be able to determine for themselves their own religious culture, faith tradition and practices.”

“When you have a physician who knows the policy of the nursing home, as well as the family knowing the policies, to have this physician surreptitiously bring these drugs into the nursing home, in violation of the policies, and then she goes ahead and commits the act … shows an absolute disregard and lack of respect for the greater religious community,” Bussey said.

While Bussey agreed with Keselman a judicial review may not have a different outcome, he thinks it would have value in the wake of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Trinity Western decision, which upheld the rights of provincial law societies, as well as provincial regulatory agencies regulating a profession, to make decisions in the public interest on the basis of vague “Charter values” even when those values clash with rights enumerated in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms such as religious freedom and conscience rights.

“[A judicial review] would help society as a whole to see and hear just how far the thinking of the Supreme Court in its Trinity Western decision would go,” Bussey said.