Delta Hospice Society pledges to fight on as it faces layoffs, eviction for refusing to provide euthanasia on site

Photo: Delta Hospice Society (The B.C. Catholic - CCN)

By B.C. Catholic staff

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – The Delta Hospice Society in British Columbia says it has been forced to issue layoff notices to clinical staff at its 10-bed hospice in Delta effective Feb. 25, all due to its opposition to on-site euthanasia.

“We have been left no other choice due to the Fraser Health Authority cancelling our service agreement and 35-year lease,” president Angelina Ireland said in a statement Jan. 8.

“Fraser Health is about to evict us and expropriate approximately $15 million of our assets simply because we decline to euthanize our patients.”

The DHS has been fighting an uphill battle since last February, when the Fraser Health Authority announced it was cancelling the society’s lease and terminating contracts effective February 2021 due to the society’s unwillingness to support assisted suicide at its hospice. That led to legal battles and protests as the society has tried to maintain its position that assisted suicide is contrary to hospice care and the mission the Irene Thomas Hospice was founded on nearly 30 years ago.

Ireland said health and government officials have refused offers to negotiate. “They want us to give everything over to them voluntarily … just give them everything, be quiet, and go away.”

Late last year The B.C. Catholic reported the hospice was considering a Supreme Court of Canada appeal, saying the society is being “mistakenly” treated as a public institution rather than a private one.

Ireland wasn’t immediately available to provide an update, but said in a video message Jan. 7 the controversy won’t end when the lease does. The society has launched Save Delta Hospice and plans to lobby legislators to ensure some hospices remain euthanasia-free zones.

“We are a society that has gone national in our quest for hospice sanctuary and safe spaces in this country,” she said. “The fight is not over. The fight has just begun.”

The society has support from some top voices in palliative care in B.C. and Ontario. Dr. Margaret Cottle, a Vancouver palliative care physician for more than three decades, said forcing assisted suicide into hospices undoes the legacy of physicians who pioneered palliative care through its early years.

“We spent a lot of time talking to patients, talking to our colleagues, saying ‘We are not Dr. Death. Palliative care does not hasten or prolong natural death.’”

She said hospices exist to help people live well and symptom-free until natural death.

“If I come to the end of my life and I’m in a position where I am desperate for some reason, maybe I lost hope, maybe I’m having symptoms that I’m having trouble getting under control … maybe it’s a bad day for me … I want to be sure that I’m in a place that won’t just take me at my word when I say I just want to die,” she said.

“I want to be in a place where people will love me, who will come alongside me, who will provide hope for me and say, ‘what is the worst part of this for you? How can we help you? How can we reframe hope for you? How can we help you control your symptoms? How can we help you come together with your family?’ That’s what this is all about.”

Dr. Neil Hilliard, a palliative care physician in Abbotsford, said he resigned from a post as palliative care program director with Fraser Health in 2017 over the issue of requiring hospices to provide assisted suicide.

“We know that only five per cent, at most, of Canadians wish for medical assistance in dying,” Hillard said. “It makes me wonder why the province of B.C. has taken this particular action of forcing a hospice against their principles to provide physician-hastened death.”

Dr. Rene Leiva, a family physician in Ottawa, said institutions across Canada are allowed to practise under their own ethical principles. For B.C. to impose its own values on unwilling hospices “is very unusual for a government to do … it is, in fact, totalitarian.”

He said in this case the government is failing to provide a “reasonable accommodation” of the hospice, especially since access to assisted suicide is available at the Delta Hospital next door.

Vancouver family physician Dr. Williard Johnston called the lease cancellation an “obviously unfair and unjust attack.”

Johnston related how one of his patients went into hospice care two years ago with no intention of asking for a doctor to end her life. “She was hoping to live the remaining days of her life as fully as she possibly could,” he said.

Within days of arriving, the patient was “pressured” into signing an assisted death request that would end her life in four days. Her brother arrived from Australia a few days later and was able to help her change her mind. She lived for another month, made amends with family members, and died a natural death.

“The vast majority of people have no interest in having anything to do with euthanasia,” Johnston said, adding the public benefits from spaces where they can “be absolutely convinced and safe in their trust of the classic palliative care principles, which involve living as fully as you can until dying of a natural death.”

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has also expressed its support of DHS through executive director Alex Schadenberg.

“This is a situation where I very clearly see that the B.C. government policy discriminates against people who want to be cared for in a euthanasia-free environment,” he said, adding that the EPC has received many calls from people saying they or people they love have felt pressure to end their lives.

“If you think it’s something that doesn’t happen, in fact it is happening.”

Supporters of the Fraser Health decision, including members of a group called Take Back Delta Hospice, have called it an issue of human rights and access to palliative care to all citizens regardless of end-of-life choices.