OTTAWA (CCN) — An amendment to Canada’s proposed assisted suicide legislation fails to go far enough to protect conscience rights and religious freedom, say several opponents.
The Justice Committee voted to amend Bill C-14 to add a clause that says no one should be compelled to participate in euthanasia and assisted suicide. But Conservative MPs, medical and legal representatives want further amendments before Bill C-14 becomes law, expected by June 6.
The committee added a clause May 11 that says: “For greater certainty, nothing in this section compels an individual to provide or assist in providing medical assistance in dying.” It also amended the preamble to stipulate that the bill recognizes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees regarding freedom of conscience and religion.
But the bill still fails to provide protection for institutions that refuse to participate in assisted suicide or address the issue of referrals.
The committee returned the bill to the House of Commons May 12, and debate began on third reading May 16.
“We think it’s a good start,” said Larry Worthen, spokesperson for the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience and executive director of the Christian Medical Dental Society of Canada.
Worthen said the context does not make it clear Parliament intends participation in assisted death to be voluntary for health workers.
“We think that’s their intention, but it needs to be more explicit in the legislation,” he said. “That includes not participating in referral.
“We have a moral theological opinion on this that says that referral is formal co-operation in evil, so there should be approaches in place to ensure that caregivers are not required to refer, to actually perform euthanasia or to be discriminated against because of their refusal to participate.”
Conservative MP Mark Warawa, who had hoped for tougher conscience protections, called the amendment a “step in the right direction, but (it) did not adequately react to the issue.”
Warawa said the government’s plan is to leave regulation regarding conscience rights to the provinces and if the provinces do not regulate, leaving it to the various professional colleges. He said he would have preferred amendments to the bill “to make it a criminal offence to force any health professionals against their will to participate in euthanasia and assisted suicide.”
He noted the College of Physicians of Ontario has already said it will require an “effective referral.”
“Nothing in those proposed amendments stop the colleges or the provinces from requiring physicians and other health care professionals to provide, participate or refer,” said constitutional lawyer Albertos Polizogopoulos. “That being said, it’s good at least the legislation that legalizes or decriminalizes assisted suicide recognized the Charter protects freedom of conscience and religion.
“If nothing else, that’s a message from Parliament that clearly says they don’t intend for health care practitioners to be compelled to participate in this,” he said.
Catholic Civil Rights League president and constitutional lawyer Phil Horgan expressed concern that the amendment “excludes any reference to institutional rights of Catholic and other Christian hospitals or hospices.”
He said the bill “remains a worse proposal than the law that would exist post-June 6 in the absence of its passage.”
In its current form, the bill “accelerates” the likelihood of advance directives and access to assisted suicide for mature minors and people with mental health issues “by stipulating a further study or studies within six months,” Horgan said.
“Are we ready for widespread risks of abuse that are sure to follow?” he asked.
Warawa said he will still go ahead with his private member’s Bill C-268 that would make it a criminal offence to coerce, threaten or withdraw employment from health care workers who refuse to participate in euthanasia and assisted suicide, though it likely won’t come up for debate until the fall of 2017.