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Bill protects conscience rights of health care professionals

By Patti Fitzmaurice


WINNIPEG — Health care professionals in Manitoba now have the legal right to choose not to participate in Medical Assistance in Dying under Bill 34, a new law passed by the Manitoba legislature.

When Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon put out a request for the faithful to participate in a letter-writing campaign in support of the bill, it would have been easy to be cynical and not do anything in the belief that a letter would not help this bill get passed. But over 4,500 people did answer the call. The actual number of those who responded is estimated to be well over 5,500, as many spouses and families signed one letter.

Combined with letters and emails received from all the dioceses in Manitoba — the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, the Ukrainian Archeparchy of Winnipeg, the Archdiocese of Keewatin-le Pas, the Diocese of Churchill, and other faith organizations — the Manitoba government received more than 14,000 letters in support of the bill.

At the committee stage, MLAs are invited to speak on a bill before a committee. It was clear from the comments made that the number of letters received by the government had made an impact. The ruling Progressive Conservatives were pleased with the support that their bill was receiving and the NDP indicated they were in support of the bill. Liberal Judith Klassen specifically mentioned that the letters made her feel more comfortable in her support of the bill and she also said the Liberals were supporting the bill.

The letters showed the Manitoba legislature that this was an issue that mattered to Manitobans. Once the letters started to arrive, the bill quickly moved to committee. The bill could have been put on the shelf for consideration at a later date, given the amount of legislation the government had to consider, but in light of the overwhelming evidence that Manitobans wanted this law, the government made sure the bill passed before the end of the session.

When the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that medical assistance in dying was a Charter right for every Canadian, it also mentioned the freedom of conscience and religious rights of health care professionals who do not wish to participate in providing medical assistance in dying. It was then left to debate how those two rights would be dealt with. There were those who felt it was the right of patients to have their own doctors refer or provide the assistance regardless of the doctor’s beliefs, and there were doctors and other health care professionals who said they would give up their profession rather than be forced to participate in a patient’s death.

The law makes it clear how Manitobans want the issue of the competing Charter rights to be dealt with. It could have been left to various professional colleges to regulate how their members would deliver the service, but such colleges do not speak for Manitobans as a whole, whereas the legislature does. Furthermore, regulations are easily changed, Manitoba could have ended up with a situation such as exists in Ontario, where the medical college has determined that its members, regardless of their personal convictions, must refer patients to a physician who will assist them in dying.

Conscience rights and freedom of religion rights are often dismissed as irrelevant or trivial, but Catholics believe that their conscience is their core and sanctuary, where they hear the voice of God leading them to do what is true and good. If people are not allowed to follow their conscience, they cannot really know who they are. Likewise, they cannot permit someone else to have his or her freedom of conscience violated.

The Manitoba government has stated that there is no hierarchy in these Charter rights and by passing Bill 34 into law they have achieved a balance between the right to medically assisted suicide and the right of health care professionals to follow their conscience and not participate.

Fitzmaurice is co-ordinator at Micah House, the Archdiocese of Winnipeg Catholic Centre for Social Justice.


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