Concern for conscience rights grows: “Somebody needs to step up”

House of Commons, Parliament Hill, Ottawa (Photo - Wikipedia Commons)

By Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

{OTTAWA – CCN] – As the federal government moves towards expanding who can legally access medically-induced suicide or euthanasia, a vocal critic of state-sponsored death is demanding that conscience rights for doctors who don’t want to take part in what the Canadian government calls medical assistance in death (“MAiD”) be protected by a federal law.

Although Euthanasia Prevention Coalition director Alex Schadenberg is vehemently opposed to allowing state-sanctioned medical suicide, he said if there is going to be such a system in Canada, healthcare providers who are morally opposed to it must be allowed to follow their conscience and must not be required to participate in any way.

“Look, I don’t expect much to come from this (federal) government and I certainly don’t expect much to come out of Quebec, but somebody in the House needs to step up and bring the protection of conscience rights for health care providers to the forefront,” Schadenberg said.

The issue of conscience rights for health care providers on issues such as assisted suicide, euthanasia and abortion has long been a sore point among some healthcare providers, as there is a wide range of regulations across the country, given that provision of medical care in Canada falls under provincial jurisdiction.

The province of Manitoba has passed rules protecting conscience rights for doctors, but in other provinces such as Ontario, court decisions have effectively mandated that although healthcare providers do not have to carry out an assisted death, they must refer patients to another healthcare provider who will. For healthcare providers who are morally opposed, such a mandated referral is a form of participating in the procedure.

Canadian Physicians for Life executive director Nicole Scheidl said that the issue of demanding heath care providers in Ontario to refer patients to doctors who will provide the service is putting the burden on some doctors to participate in a procedure that they do not want to be involved in at all because of grave moral concerns.

“Those who support a MAiD system should be responsible for setting up referral lines that people can call (directly) if they want that kind of a referral. It should not be up to a doctor who does not want to participate,” she said in a recent interview with the Canadian Catholic News.

Before last October’s federal election, former Conservative MP David Anderson put forward a private member’s bill to amend the Criminal Code to make it an offence to intimidate a medical practitioner, nurse practitioner, pharmacist or any other health care professional for the purpose of compelling them to take part in the provision of medically-assisted suicide or euthanasia.

That proposed bill would also have made it an offence to dismiss from employment or to refuse to employ such practitioners because they refuse to take part in medically-assisted death. However, that proposal died on the order paper when the federal election was called. Anderson did not run for re-election in the 2019 federal campaign.

A recent effort to bring forward a law in Alberta to enshrine conscience rights for doctors failed to be brought to a full vote in that province’s legislature, even though it was advanced as a private members bill by a backbencher in the governing party.

The federal government is expected to propose changes to the assisted suicide/euthanasia system this month. The decision to act now in making changes is tied to a recent Quebec court decision in September 2019: the Truchon decision struck down as unconstitutional the “reasonably foreseeable” and imminent death requirement to qualify for assisted suicide or euthanasia.

Both the federal and Quebec governments could have appealed that decision, but have decided not to, continuing a pattern in which the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada has been driven by court rulings. The federal laws around assisted suicide and euthanasia were originally introduced in 2016 as a result of a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2015.

The federal legislation presently includes a requirement that a person receiving medically-assisted death must already be nearing the end of life (which the Quebec court decision has struck down). In addition, under the law, anyone seeking an assisted death must be an adult, and cannot be suffering from a mental illness. The law also forbids advance permission for euthanasia to be administered after a patient’s condition deteriorates to the point in which they are mentally impaired from making a decision.