OTTAWA (CCN) — Cardinal Thomas Collins stressed his opposition to euthanasia and the importance of conscience rights before the parliamentary committee on physician-assisted dying.
“We urge you to consider carefully the drastic negative effects physician-assisted suicide will have in our country: killing a person will no longer be seen as a crime, but instead will be treated as a form of health care,” the Archbishop of Toronto told the committee.
The cardinal appeared with Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada’s (CMDS) executive director Laurence Worthen on behalf of the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience that includes the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, the CMDS, the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, and Canadian Physicians for Life.
“The right to be put to death will, in practice, become in some cases the duty to be put to death, as subtle pressure is brought to bear on the vulnerable,” said Collins, warning of the “grievous effect” engaging in the killing of patients will have on the medical profession and upon patient trust.
“The strong message from the Supreme Court is unmistakeable: some lives are just not worth living. We passionately disagree,” he said.
Collins said those who have moral convictions that prevent them from being involved in euthanasia or assisted suicide “deserve to be respected.”
Government must ensure conscience protection for both institutions and individuals, he said. “They should not be forced to perform actions that go against their conscience, or to refer the action to others, since that is the moral equivalent of participating in the act itself. It is simply not right or just to say: you do not have to do what is against your conscience, but you must make sure it happens.”
During the question period following their formal presentation, several committee members asked for suggestions on how physician-assisted death might be implemented safely, given the Supreme Court decision.
“I am sure people around this table are very much committed to assuring physician-assisted suicide takes place,” the Archbishop of Toronto told the committee, noting it is their task. “I don’t believe that is the direction the country should be going.”
The cardinal said he would not engage in suggesting how many doctors might be necessary to determine if someone qualifies for euthanasia or assisted suicide. “What I do believe is the rights of conscience need to be protected,” he said. He also said alternatives need to be funded and presented, such as palliative care, to ensure protection of the vulnerable.
“I’m with the cardinal on this,” said Worthen, noting his time with a medical ethicist in the Netherlands revealed how safeguards do not work. “The so-called safeguards are there just to sell physician-assisted suicide.”
No other jurisdiction that allows physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia has put the funding in place to do a full evaluation on whether a person is being coerced, Worthen said.
“We have concerns even with use of words ‘safeguard,’ ” he said. “It normally means ‘whatever we can put in place to salve our conscience on how these vulnerable people are going to be put to death.’ ”
Collins was preceded by Canadian Unitarian Council executive director Vyda Ng who told the committee institutions that receive public funding should be required to provide physician-assisted dying on their premises. “It’s the constitutional right of every Canadian to receive this care,” she said, noting the “delicate balance” between patient rights and those of individual physicians. She acknowledged someone checking into a faith-based facility “will know ahead of time certain moral values apply.”
The cardinal said health care institutions run by religious groups are more than bricks and mortar. “Institutions are made of people,” he said, referring to the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Grey Nuns and others who built health care institutions. “They have values,” he said. “That’s why people come to them” because they are trusted.
Both Collins and Worthen laid out the risks to vulnerable Canadians who lack access to palliative care and supports for those with disabilities and mental illness. They urged the government to improve these services.
“Despite our concerns, members of our coalition will not obstruct the patient’s decision, should this legislation be put in place,” Worthen said. While they will not refer, they would transfer patients to other facilities if they determined they wanted to pursue the option.
The Coalition calls for a patients to have direct access to a “third-party information and referral service that would provide them with an assessment once they have discussed assisted death with their own doctor and clearly decided they wish to seek it,” he said.
Worthen stressed the proposal is “not to simply send someone to the yellow pages” or to a 1-800 number or a website. “Our doctors are committed to the life and well-being of their patients,” he said, noting they would want to maintain the patient/doctor relationship to determine the underlying reason for the request and “responding compassionately.”
Worthen said it is a misreading of the Carter decision to say it requires individual physicians or facilities to provide the service. “If this is something the Supreme Court of Canada has mandated, the Department of Health has to provide those services.”
For remote areas, instead of forcing doctors to perform euthanasia, the Department of Health could send doctors in, he said.