TORONTO, Canada – Conscience protections for Catholic hospitals and other organizations could soon come under fire in the Canadian province of Ontario, with one assisted suicide group saying they may challenge this legislation in court.
Deacon Larry Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, warned that it becomes very difficult to defend objections to assisted suicide once it becomes legal.
“Of course our position would be that there should be no requirement for faith-based institutions to be involved in assisted suicide or euthanasia,” the deacon said. “It’s appropriate that not only the institution, but the individuals should be protected as well.
“I think that conscientious objection in Canada, unfortunately, hangs by a thread,” he told Catholic News Agency August 17. “There are many of us fighting for this right, but the concern is that in a society where killing a patient is seen to be a compassionate and merciful act, then those who refuse to do it are by definition uncompassionate and uncharitable.
“When you legalize euthanasia, and killing becomes moral, then that quickly becomes the norm, and those who deviate from that are seen to be outliers and unprofessional in their approach,” he added.
More than 630 people have killed themselves in Ontario under legal assisted suicide, but not at Catholic hospitals, CBC News reports. In Ontario, the law requires hospitals, hospices and long-term care centers that will not take part in assisted suicide to transfer the patient to a facility that will.
But Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of pro-assisted suicide group Dying With Dignity Canada, claims that the current Ontario law “gave an opt-out to basic and essential health care to hospitals that don’t want to provide for the dying.” She said transferring patients may not be easy for people nearing the end of life, the older, the frail, and those already in pain.
Gokool’s group presently says individual doctors or nurses should be able to choose not to take part in assisted suicide, but organizations should not be able to do so.
For Worthen, however, the rights of individuals and of facilities are linked “very closely together.”
“Doctors, nurses, and other health professionals spend their whole lives being at the beds of the sick, with the point of view of helping them, supporting, them, helping them with their pain. To ask the same individuals then to participate in the deaths of those patients strikes me as being totalitarian and inhumane,” he said.
“No individual should be forced to go against their conscience, especially in something as personal and emotional as the taking of human life.”
Similarly, Worthen backed the right of faith groups to have facilities to provide health care according to their faith, culture and tradition.
“In order for that facility to have that ethos or mission, it needs to be able to be free to follow the tenets of its faith without any coercion from the state,” he said. “A diverse society would require that.”
Worthen added that there are good inherent reasons to oppose assisted suicide, dating back to the ancient physician Hippocrates.
When people find themselves wanting to end their lives, he said, “the doctor should be there to provide the support that that person needs, so that they can feel that life is worth living, as opposed to agreeing with them, and participating in ending their lives.”
Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins said he is confident there is sufficient access to assisted suicide.
“We’re obviously monitoring it very, very closely and currently don’t have those concerns in terms of access,” he said, noting that many assisted suicides take place outside an institutional setting. Hoskins said “about half of medical assistance in dying happens at home.”
Dying With Dignity Canada is also challenging rules against freedom-of-information officers releasing the names of facilities that do or do not assist in suicides. The present policy differs from the Alberta province, which requires public health institutions that do not assist in suicides to publish data each week showing how many patients are transferred for medically assisted suicide.
Worthen also warned of cases where physicians pressured patients into ending their lives, where they had not already made the decision to do so.
“We’ve heard stories where health care practitioners are already suggesting assisted suicide to patients, and even encouraging that, and discouraging family members from aiding the person continuing their lives,” the deacon said.
At least one Canadian medical school has incorporated the issue of conscientious objection to assisted suicide into its admission process. One applicant was asked by an actor to help them commit suicide. When the student recoiled from this, the actor continued to press until finally the student assented.
Some are reportedly advocating that conscientious objectors to assisted suicide should not be allowed in medical school.