OTTAWA (CCN) — An incident involving a man who was refused assessment for euthanasia at a Catholic hospital in Vancouver has increased pressure on all faith-based institutions to violate their principles.
Last August, Ian Shearer, 84, was transferred from St. Paul’s Hospital to another institution after he made a request for an assisted death. The Catholic hospital refused to participate in the process of assessing his eligibility for the procedure. His family told news media he experienced extreme pain as he was shuffled from hospital to hospital until he found an institution to complete his request.
This incident prompted the Fraser Health Authority Board of Directors to consider forcing all palliative care units and hospices to provide euthanasia and assisted suicide.
In a Sept. 27 letter to the board, Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller warned such a move would “undermine the contribution of palliative care at the very time it needs support and development.”
“What a cruel dilemma to offer palliative care patients — compassionate care or death, as equally viable options,” he wrote.
“Such a decision will also create a terrible conflict of interest for palliative care workers who see their departments as sacred places to alleviate suffering and honour human dignity,” he wrote. Instead, they will “watch vulnerable people they care for offered an economically expedient shortcut in the form of a lethal injection” and may be “forced to participate in medically assisted suicide contrary to their ethical principles.”
Catholic Health Association of Canada president Michael Shea would not comment on the individual circumstances in Vancouver, but said as a national policy Catholic institutions will “respond respectfully and compassionately to requests for physician-assisted suicide and try to stay engaged with the persons, to find out the nature of the person’s request.”
“Catholic health care is rooted in the sacred dignity of the person,” he stressed. “We have had this long-standing tradition of compassionate care that neither prolongs dying nor hastens death.”
“I think it’s clear that Catholic health care will not undertake the procedure,” he said. “The question is how does it get handled. That varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, depending on how health authority has set up processes around the procedure.”
Processes are still in developmental stages, and health authorities are adapting, he said.
Informal discussions with patients “who are contemplating their end-of-life options” and “the formal due care procedural step as part of the medical assistance in dying process” are two different things, he stressed. “For providers who have a conscientious objection to the process that’s problematic.”
“It’s a matter of principle for us,” and part of the foundational “basic matters” of Catholic health care, he said.
The Vancouver incident spawned a spate of mainstream media reaction, including an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen accusing Catholic hospitals of “letting down” terminally ill patients.
While the Citizen said individual doctors should not be forced to euthanize patients, “individual choice” of patients is “paramount” and tax-funded Catholic institutions must find a physician willing to do so on site.
“Forcing those in pain to leave the site in order to obtain even an end-of-life assessment is simply inhumane,” the Citizen argued.
Shea argued that publically funded health care providers offer a variety of services to the public, but no one facility offers every possible service. “People are transferred every day for different services,” he said.
For Larry Worthen, spokesperson for the Coalition on HealthCARE and Conscience, and executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, what’s at stake is a constitutional right under Section 2 of the Charter “that allows organizations to be able to operate according to their values and principles and to be able to create a space where people can feel safe, where they don’t have the threat of wrongful death.”
Worthen rejects the public funding argument for imposing one standard regarding euthanasia. “The government raises money from a diverse population who have very many different attitudes and perspectives on this controversial issue,” he said. “I think it is the responsibility of government to make sure people have facilities that they need and want for all differing perspectives.”
“End of life can be a very challenging and lonely time and people need to institutions and places where they can go where they will feel they are supported to live out their life and experience a natural death,” he said. “People should be able to do that in the context of their faith, their background.”
“We should allow organizations to be able to make their own decisions on this, based on their organizational and institutional values,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Coalition is undertaking a lobbying effort in Ontario to “express our concerns about the lack of conscience protection for caregivers, and also to reinforce the importance of facilities to be given the right to determine what their policy is going to be on medical aid in dying,” he said. The Coalition had already visited about one quarter of the MPPs in the Ontario legislature, he said.
He said he encouraged concerned citizens to go to the Coalition’s http://www.canadiansforconscience.ca website to see how to “send a letter to their MPP to support the work we’re doing.”