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Catholic bioethicists differ on advising consultation on ‘assisted death’

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

09/16/2015

OTTAWA (CCN) — Two Catholic bioethicists have given different responses to a request to sit on the provincial/territorial panel developing guidelines for “physician assisted death.”

Sister Nuala Kenny, a professor emeritus of bioethics at Dalhousie University and a retired pediatrician with an expertise on end of life issues, has agreed to sit on the panel.

“I decided to participate because I did not believe I had any other moral option,” said Kenny, who noted she is a Roman Catholic religious sister and a prominent Catholic, but one who has always worked in secular universities and medical schools.

“My position is, it’s clearly that of minimizing harm,” Kenny said. “The harm has been done. After the Feb. 6, 2015, Supreme Court decision, assisted death, both physician assisted suicide and physician-performed euthanasia are now legal.”

What we have now is a stay on the legalization to give some opportunities to develop oversight mechanisms, she said.

“We have lost the battle for those of us who believe assisted death is wrong,” she said. If nothing is done at all, on Feb. 6, 2016, “ we would have in this country the most liberal assisted dying policies in the world.”

The Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute’s executive director Moira McQueen, however, refused a request to sit on the panel.

“The whole thing about mitigating harm and safeguards are for the birds,” she said. She pointed out how the safeguards for euthanasia in the Netherlands and other jurisdictions “evaporated very quickly.”

“When something is really seriously wrong in the first place — Catholic teaching would call it intrinsically wrong — how can you mitigate the harm?” she asked. “It’s so wrong, no matter what follows from it is also wrong. I would call it formal co-operation.”

“Any contribution I could make would simply be to put forward my moral objection to the whole enterprise, and that clearly does not fit with the mandate,” she told the AG’s office in an email. “Nor would I want to be part of the panel in order to make it look as though different points of view had been heard and considered before matters proceed. Implementation means that a step has been done or omitted, and government has shown its hand.”

McQueen said she is concerned that most people will “sit back and say that’s acceptable” when the government draws up safeguards, with no knowledge of what has happened in jurisdictions that have tried them. “We are not informed enough and will not be listening to people who say safeguards are not working,” she said. “I’m concerned many ordinary lay people are being lulled into a false sense of security about mitigating harm.”

McQueen said she agreed with the approach of the Catholic Women’s League and other organizations that are calling for the use of the notwithstanding clause to override the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision last February that struck down some of the Criminal Code provisions against assisted suicide. She also supports the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition’s campaign “Give us More Time” approach. She suggested Canada hold a referendum on the matter to ensure people are informed.

Euthanasia “affects every single family,” because “everyone dies,” in a way that abortion does not, she said, noting that when abortion was first decriminalized it was only supposed to be in very limited circumstances such as a health risk to the mother. Now, it’s abortion on demand, she said.

McQueen admitted, however, that even Canada’s bishops are conflicted on how to respond. “Everyone is trying to do the best they can,” she said. Though every Catholic organization is strongly opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia, they disagree on strategy.

“To keep saying we are opposed, that’s not good enough for me,” Kenny said. The panel will be dealing with issues such as consent and how it is obtained, whether there can be advance consent and other matters. The panel will also have an impact on conscience rights for medical personnel and hospital directors, she said.

“Many of my colleagues would be very, very strong on wanting to protect conscience,” she said. “Yet if you are not inside on the groups making these decisions, you can’t help protect conscience.”

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