SASKATOON — Catholic health care representatives and diocesan leaders have expressed disappointment and dismay at the Feb. 6 Supreme Court of Canada decision that will permit physicians to cause the death of people by assisted suicide.
“The Supreme Court’s decision today is cause of great concern,” said Bishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon. “The Catholic Church stands firm in its defence of the human dignity of every person. That dignity is not lost because of aging or illness, suffering or disability. The person who fears pain needs to be reassured and to know that it is possible to receive good medical care, including pain management. We need to eliminate the pain, rather than eliminating the patient.”
The unanimous Supreme Court decision legalizes physician-assisted suicide as an option for anyone who has a “medical condition (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual.”
“By permitting assisted suicide, the court is jeopardizing the lives of many vulnerable Canadian citizens,” said Mary Deutscher, a member of the Justice and Peace Commission in the Saskatoon diocese. Deutscher also serves on the board of the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan.
“Canadians need to rally together to ensure that no one feels pressured into accepting suicide, especially those suffering from mental illnesses, elders and persons with disabilities,” she stressed.
“Our law against assisted suicide existed for a reason: to protect people who are considering taking their own lives. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision today, suicide remains something to be avoided at all costs, and Canadians have a responsibility to ensure that those contemplating suicide are given the positive support they need to value their own lives,” Deutscher said.
“The decriminalization of assisted suicide changes our society in a very fundamental way, and all Canadians deserve the opportunity to participate in a democratic discussion of this issue,” she said, urging everyone to make their voices heard by contacting MPs and MLAs.
The Supreme Court has given government a year to come up with regulations around physician-assisted suicide before the ruling will come into force.
“The discernment of the government in the coming year is of immense importance,” stressed Bolen. “How can we as a society protect vulnerable people — those with disabilities, those suffering from depression or other forms of mental illness — from pressures pushing them to seek an earlier death? How can we keep ourselves from being driven by financial arguments, which suggest that it is appropriate that people ask to end their lives in order not to put a strain on the rest of us? In the name of autonomy and freedom for some, how will we safeguard the lives of many others whose lives will be endangered by our laws?”
Other questions must also be addressed, he said. “What will be the consequences for doctors, who up till now have been responsible for a healing ministry, to now be given permission to take the lives of those they are trained to serve? How can we avoid seriously undermining the trust that must exist between patients and doctors?”
What this decision will mean for the conscience rights of doctors and health care providers — and for the operations of faith-based health care facilities — remains unclear.
The court decision states in section 132: “What follows is in the hands of the physicians’ colleges, Parliament, and the provincial legislatures.” The Supreme Court decision further states: “a physician’s decision to participate in assisted dying is a matter of conscience and in some cases religious belief . . . we underline that the Charter rights of patients and physicians will need to be reconciled.”
Saskatchewan’s provincial college of physicians is one of two in the country that recently proposed a policy that would force physicians to refer, and in some cases perform, procedures contrary to their personal or professional ethics, or their conscience (see related story, page 3). This could include procedures such as abortion, assisted suicide or euthanasia.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan (CPSS) is presently seeking feedback about the new policy on conscientious refusal of services. In a message to parishes Feb. 5, Bolen encouraged parishioners to respond to this proposed policy before a March 6 deadline. More information on the issue from the Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) and the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Society (CFCPS) can be found at www.cmdscanada.org.
“In disregarding physicians’ right to freedom of conscience, this proposed policy promotes an image of the human person as someone who can be detached from his or her moral reasoning,” Bolen said.
“A person who has deafened himself or herself to the guidance of his or her conscience will experience a deep interior dissonance. Some physicians will feel compelled to leave Saskatchewan rather than comply with such a policy. Others will suffer moral distress that will compromise their care for their patients. In the interests of all Canadians, we need to ensure access to care from physicians of integrity who are free to engage their consciences and honour their commitment to do no harm.”
It is deeply troubling that freedom of conscience for physicians is under threat, said Therese Jelinski, chair of the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan (CHAS). “It is unclear how the Supreme Court ruling will impact the majority of physicians who want nothing to do with helping patients to die, or faith-based health care facilities whose mandate is to heal, not to kill.”
Time is needed to review the court decision and determine its impact on Catholic health facilities, said Scott Irwin, director of the Catholic Health Ministry of Saskatchewan, which oversees a number of Catholic hospitals and care homes in the province. “We are disappointed with the ruling of the Supreme Court,” he said.
In presentations to the Supreme Court, several intervenors expressed the need to affirm the right to refuse to participate in assisted suicide on the basis of conscience or codes of ethics. Irwin expressed the hope that provincial and federal governments will step forward to actively address those concerns, rather than leaving the situation “in limbo.”
In reflecting on the court decision, Jelinski emphasized the need for a greater focus on palliative care.
“Unfortunately, what has been lost in the argument for physician-assisted suicide is that we have a pressing need in Canada to improve access to hospice palliative care, including proper pain and symptom management,” she said. “It is shameful how few people in Canada can access palliative care, when it has been shown to improve quality of life for dying patients and to offer a healing experience for them and their families.”
Bolen also called on governments to provide palliative care funding “which would allow Canadian citizens to be given compassionate and holistic care, in the supportive context of family and community, as they face impending death.”
The court ruling is of great concern for all Canadians, agreed Blake Sittler, director of Pastoral Services at the Catholic Pastoral Centre. “I recognize that many people celebrate this out of a legitimate place of compassion and laudable desire for personal autonomy, but I worry what will happen to our society when we choose a misplaced compassion over deep and abiding hope,” said Sittler.
The issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide — and how to respond to this new ruling — will be part of a diocesan Congress Day to be held in three locations across the Diocese of Saskatoon in the weeks ahead: Feb. 28 in Saskatoon, March 7 in Kindersley and March 14 in Humboldt. The Congress Day is open to all interested parishioners. For more information see the diocesan website: www.saskatoonrcdiocese.com.
“The Supreme Court’s decision gives priority to the rights of individuals who seek to end their lives. But every person’s decisions impact the whole of society, and affect the common good,” said Bolen.
“The legal prohibition of killing is foundational to our society, or at least it should be. It has protected us all and provided a confidence that our lives, and each human life, are of an inherent dignity and worth. Till now, our society has reached out to vulnerable people who need help in living, not help in dying. With assisted suicide, we are now venturing out on a dangerous path. May the wisdom and compassion of the Canadian people come to the fore in assisting our government to discern well in the year ahead. The implications of this discernment are of immense proportions.”