Redefining the Practice of Medicine- Euthanasia in Quebec, Part 7: Refusing to Kill

Abstract

It is important identify problems that the Act poses for those who object to euthanasia for reasons of conscience, and to consider how objecting health care workers might avoid or respond to coercion by the government and the state medical and legal establishments.  The goal here is to ensure that conscientious objectors to euthanasia will be able to continue to work in health care without becoming complicit in what they consider to be wrongdoing.

Physicians may refuse to provide euthanasia if the patient is legally ineligible, and for other reasons, including conscientious objection.  ARELC requires physicians who refuse to provide euthanasia for any reason other than non-eligibility to notify a designated adminstrator, who then becomes responsible for finding a MAD physician.  The idea is to have the institution or health care system completely relieve the physician of responsibility for facilitating the procedure.

It would be preferable to end the involvement of the objecting physician with refusal, accompanied by a suggestion that the patient will have to look for assistance from other sources.  This might be achieved if objecting physicians were to notify both executive directors and patients in advance that they will not provide or facilitate euthanasia.

A more sensitive problem attends the requirement that an objecting physician forward  a euthanasia request form to the designated administrator, since that is more clearly connected to the ulitmate killing of a patient.  Since the requirement to forward the request applies only if it has been given to the physician, this might be avoided if the objecting physician made his position clear in advance, and/or refused to accept such a request.  Such complications could avoided if administrators were to adopt a policy to the effect that a health care professional who witnesses and countersigns a euthanasia request to arrange for MAD services is responsible for arranging them.

The protection of conscience provision in ARELC distinguishes physicians from other health professionals, providing less protection for physicians than for others.  Other health care professionals may refuse to “take part” (participate) in killing a patient for reasons of conscience.  Physicians may refuse only “to administer” euthanasia – a very specific action –  which seems to suggest that they are expected to participate in other ways.

Some Quebec physicians may be unwilling to provide euthanasia while the criminal law stands, even if they do not object to the procedure. Quebec’s Attorney General may be unwilling to provide the extraordinary kind of immunity sought by physicians, which exceeds what was recommended by the Select Committee on Dying with Dignity, and some physicians may be unwilling to provide euthanasia without it.

Finally, as long as euthanasia remains a criminal offence, physicians or other entities responsible for issuing or administering MAD guidelines may respond to requests for euthanasia precisely as they would respond to requests to become involved in first degree murder: with total refusal to co-operate.  Even a partial  and scattered response of this kind would likely be administratively troublesome.

Patients may lodge complaints against physicians who refuse to provide or facilitate euthanasia with institutions and the regulatory authority, regardless of the reasons for refusal. [Full Text]

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