NRL News

Assisted suicide–doctors should have conscience rights, too

by | Nov 21, 2016

By Alex Schadenberg
Executive Director – Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

luisa-damatoPoliticians, Harold Albrecht MP and Michael Harris MP, held a round table discussion on conscience rights in Kitchener last week. Luisa D’Amato, wrote an excellent report for the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on the event.

D’Amato begins by observing:

Physicians are supposed to save lives, not hasten death. 

So it’s not surprising that some doctors are having problems seeing how they fit into Canada’s new law that legalizes physician-assisted suicide for some patients. 

It turns out that conscientious objectors like Sandra Brickell, a physician who works in Kitchener hospitals, are not protected. 

“When somebody wants to end their life, it goes against what we’ve been trained to do,” she said at a meeting Friday with several other doctors, Kitchener-Conestoga MP Harold Albrecht and Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris. 

“I cannot truthfully say there is no life worth living,” Brickell said.

D’Amato then explains that in Ontario conscience rights are not legally protected:

Last summer, Parliament passed the law allowing those with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” to die with the assistance of health-care professionals. 

But in Ontario, there is no provincial law protecting doctors who cannot perform assisted dying because it is against their religious or ethical beliefs. 

The absence of a law leaves physicians in the hands of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which regulates doctors. The college says doctors don’t have to do the procedure themselves, but they are required to refer the patient to a physician who will. It’s called an “effective referral.” 

Brickell says this still compels her to participate, indirectly.

Amato then reports her concerns about how the assisted suicide law works:

She [Brickell] has profound concerns about how assisted suicide — which was mandated for Canadians by a Supreme Court decision last year — would work. 

What if the patient feels like too much of a burden on family members? What if an underfunded, overworked health-care system feels the pressure to move the patient along? What if the wish for suicide was something that could be treated with the right mental-health medications? 

Brickell understands that the new law gives patients the right to die with assistance. But she wants her rights, too. And that’s the right to step away.

In Alberta, patients whose doctors decline to participate in euthanasia can have their care transferred to another doctor if they’re in hospital. If they’re at home, they can call a number that provides access to a wide range of services, including physician-assisted suicide. Either way, the patient can access the service without the participation of his or her doctor. 

But in Ontario, there is no such solution. Doctors must either provide the service or refer the patient to another doctor who will. Disobey, and you could lose your licence.

Bioethicist, Udo Schuklenk disagrees. He wants students who oppose euthanasia to be denied access to medical school:

There could be other repercussions down the road. One bioethicist at Queen’s University, Udo Schuklenk, has suggested that students who couldn’t set aside their moral values shouldn’t be admitted into medical schools.

Harris and Albrecht support conscience rights:

Harris and Albrecht, who pushed in Parliament for respect for conscientious objectors, listened carefully to Brickell and the others on Friday. 

Harris, an opposition MP, said he will now make the case to the Ontario ministry of health and the attorney general to create legislation that better protects these conscientious objectors. 

I hope the Ontario government listens and agrees.

Conscience rights for medical professionals are essential. It is one thing to give doctors the right in law to lethally inject their patients, it is another thing to force doctors to participate.


Editor’s note. This appeared on Mr. Schadenberg’s blog.

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