Canadian physicians warned to get ready for euthanasia and assisted suicide

Re: Downar J, Bailey TM, Kagan J, Librach SL.  Physician-assisted death: time to move beyond Yes or NoCMAJ 2014 May 13;186(8):567-8. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.140204. Epub 2014 Apr 7.

Sean Murphy*

Three physicians and a lawyer have written an article published in the May issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The lead author, Dr. James Downar, is co-chair of a euthanasia/assisted suicide advocacy group.

Anticipating a change in the law, the authors warn that “well-rehearsed debates” about sanctity of life and personal autonomy “may become obsolete.”

“We need to start to answer some challenging questions in preparation for the possibility that physician-assisted death will be available in Canada soon,” they write.

Among the questions they pose, one raises two particularly sensitive issues:

Will physicians who are conscientious objectors be obliged to present physician-assisted death as an option to patients and facilitate transfers of patients to other physicians or facilities?

As a matter of law and ethics, physicians are expected to advise patients of all reasonable legal options for treatment so that patients can provide informed consent to it.  However, many physicians who are strongly opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide may view the “presentation of an option” for either procedure as inherently abusive of vulnerable patients.  This problem does not usually arise with respect to other morally contested procedures, like abortion or contraception.

A requirement to “facilitate transfers” of patients would probably be acceptable if it involved only the kind of  cooperation normally involved in the transfer of records when a patient is taken on by a different physician; this is all that is required in Belgium, Oregon and Washington State.  However, a demand that objecting physicians refer patients or actively initiate transfers would be resisted by those who would consider such actions to involve unacceptable complicity in killing.  The Supreme Court of the Philippines recognized this issue when it struck down a mandatory referral requirement in the country’s Reproductive Health Law as an unconstitutional violation of freedom of conscience.

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