Freedom of conscience in health care: “an interesting moral swamp”?

Responding to Caplan AL. Whose rights come first: Doctors or patients? Medscape, 5 November, 2019

Sean Murphy*

“Whose rights come first?” asks Professor Arthur Caplan in a recent Medscape column. “Doctors’ or patients?”

“You can’t have physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and social workers saying they are not going to do legally allowed medicine or standard-of-care treatment because it violates their rights,” says Professor Caplan. He does suggest that refusal can be allowed if the objector can find a substitute “and it doesn’t disrupt the ER or the organization of healthcare delivery.” . . . Full text

Nova Scotia hospital forced to provide euthanasia, assisted suicide

Services to be provided in attached building

Arrangement said to preserve Catholic identity

Sean Murphy*

Hospital

St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, will begin providing euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS). The hospital had refused to provide the services because they were considered to be contrary to the Catholic identity of the hospital. The change of policy appears to have been forced by the threat of a lawsuit by EAS advocates. A campaign to force the hospital to permit EAS services had been ongoing for some time [See 958 days without medical assistance in dying policy, Ban on assisted dying at St. Martha’s hospital should end, says law prof].

St. Martha’s was established by a Catholic religious order, the Sisters of St. Martha. However, in 1996 the order transferred ownership of the hospital to the state. The terms of the transfer were set out in a “Mission Assurance Agreement” that required the state to ensure that “the philosophy, mission and values of St. Martha’s Regional Hospital would remain the same and the hospital would keep its faith-based identity.”1

Notwithstanding the terms of the agreement, from 1996 the hospital was not legally a private or Catholic institution, even though it is popularly known as “Nova Scotia’s only Catholic hospital .”2 EAS advocates argued that state ownership of the hospital made it a state actor obliged to provide euthanasia and assisted suicide.1 Logically, this would also apply to abortion, surgical sterilizations, and other procedures contrary to Catholic teaching.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority states that the change of policy is consistent with “the spirit of the Mission Assurance Agreement,”3 which seems to imply that a way has been found for the hospital to “keep its [Catholic] faith-based identify” while providing euthanasia and assisted suicide.

According to NSHA’s Vice President of Health Services and Chief Nursing Executive Tim Guest, euthanasia and assisted suicide will be provided in the Antigonish Health and Wellness Centre, formerly the Martha Center.4

Built in 1961, the Antigonish Health and Wellness Center is attached to St. Martha’s Regional Hospital. In 2009, still known as the Martha Center, it was described as “primarily a professional building” of 92,000 square feet that had undergone major renovations between 2006 and 2009.5

The Sisters of St. Martha have issued a statement:

The Sisters of St Martha were informed that the Nova Scotia Health Authority continues to uphold our Mission Assurance Agreement, while providing access in Antigonish for individuals who request Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID).

The Nova Scotia Health Authority has assured us that Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) will not take place in St. Martha’s Regional Hospital. We do not own St. Martha’s Regional Hospital, or the building called the Antigonish Health and Wellness Center. . . 6

It is not clear from the statements if assessments and preliminaries for euthanasia/assisted suicide will occur in the hospital building, with actual administration of lethal medication taking place in the Health and Wellness Center.

1. Downie J, GilbertD. Nova Scotia now a leader in medical assistance in dying [Internet]. The Chronicle Herald. 2019 Sep 19.

2. Willick F. Ban on assisted dying at St. Martha’s hospital should end, says law prof [Internet]. CBC News. 2018 Dec 28.

3. Lord R, Quon A. NSHA quietly changes medically assisted dying policy at Catholic hospital [Internet]. Global News. 2019 Sep 18.

4. 989XFM. Nova Scotia Health Authority allows Medically Assisted Death at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital [Internet]. 2019 Sep 19.

5. Guysborough Antigonish Strait Health Authority. Request for Proposal: Radio Frequency (RF) Wireless Site Survey [Internet]. 2009 Apr 17.

6. Boisvert B. Sisters of St. Martha Media Statement [Internet]. 2019 Sep 19.

Maine, assisted suicide, and freedom of conscience

Accommodation of objecting physicians convoluted and unsatisfactory

Sean Murphy*

Introduction

Maine’s Death with Dignity Act1 was signed by the state governor on 12 June, 2019,2 to take effect on 18 September.  By the last week in August, physicians in the state were deeply divided and significant institutional health care providers were expected to opt out.3

In reviewing the Act, the Project focus is on sections relevant to the protection of those who refuse to provide or facilitate suicide for reasons of conscience.  These are convoluted and unsatisfactory.  In brief, the Act

  • imposes obligations on physicians that may be unacceptable to those who unwilling to facilitate assisted suicide,
  •  provides insufficient protection for objecting physicians not employed or by or under contract with an objecting institution,
  •  limits the ability of objecting health care facilities to maintain institutional integrity. . . [Full text]

New Jersey assisted suicide law and freedom of conscience

Lack of clarity on referral  is unsatisfactory

Sean Murphy*

Overview

New Jersey’s Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act1 came into effect on 1 August, 2019.2

The Act permits physician assisted suicide for any resident of New Jersey who is 18 years of age or over, who can make and communicate informed health care decisions, who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and who is likely to die within six months. Physicians assist by providing a prescription for lethal medication.  The patient must make two oral requests for the medication 15 days apart, and a written request.  Two physicians must agree that the patient is decisionally competent and meets the medical criteria.  Additional consultation is required if there is concern about psychological or psychiatric conditions that may impair a patient’s judgement.  . .[Full text]

The RH Act (2012) in brief

Appendix “B” of Philippines RH Act: Rx for controversy

Sean Murphy*

An outline of principal sections of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 relevant to freedom of conscience.

SEC. 1. Title
  • [Not reproduced here]
SEC. 2. Declaration of Policy

The State recognizes and guarantees the human rights of all persons,1 including their right to equality and nondiscrimination of these rights, the right to sustainable human development, the right to health which includes reproductive health,2 the right to education and information, and the right to choose and make decisions3 for themselves in accordance with their religious convictions, ethics, cultural beliefs and the demands of responsible parenthood.4 . . . [Full text]

Philippines population control and management policies

Appendix “A” of Philippines RH Act: Rx for controversy

Sean Murphy*

Establishment of POPCOM

In 1967, President Ferdinand Marcos joined other world leaders in adding his signature to a Declaration on Population that had been made the previous year by representatives of 12 countries (often incorrectly cited in Philippines government documents as “the UN Declaration on Population”).1 Two years later, Executive Order 171 established the Commission on Population (POPCOM), and in 1970 Executive Order 233 empowered POPCOM to direct a national population programme.2

The Population Act

The Population Act [RA 6365] passed in 1971 made family planning part of a strategy for national development. Subsequent Presidential Decrees required increased participation of public and private sectors, private organizations and individuals in the population programme.3

Under President Corazon Aquino (1986 to 1992) the family planning element of the programme was transferred to the Department of Health, where it became part of a five year health plan for improvements in health, nutrition and family planning. According to the Philippines National Statistics Office, the strong influence of the Catholic Church undermined political and financial support for family planning, so that the focus of the health policy was on maternal and child health, not on fertility reduction.4

The Population Management Program

The Ramos administration launched the Philippine Population Management Program (PPMP) in 1993. This was modified in 1999, incorporating “responsible parenthood” as a central theme.3 During the Philippines 12th Congress (2001-2004) policymakers and politicians began to focus on “reproductive health.”5

Responsible Parenthood and Family Planning Program

In 2006 the President ordered the Department of Health, POPCOM and local governments to direct and implement the Responsible Parenthood and Family Planning Program.

The Responsible Parenthood and Natural Family Planning Program’s primary policy objective is to promote natural family planning, birth spacing (three years birth spacing) and breastfeeding which are good for the health of the mother, child, family, and community. While LGUs can promote artificial family planning because of local autonomy, the national government advocates natural family planning.3

Population policy effectiveness and outcomes

The population of the Philippines grew steadily from about 27million in 1960 to over 100 million in 2018. Starting from similar populations in 1960, Thailand, Myanmar and South Korea now have much lower populations (Figure 1) . . . [Full text]

Philippines RH Act: Rx for Controversy

Diatribe by Philippines’ President turns back the clock

Sean Murphy*

Abstract

Turning back the clock

In June, 2019, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte blamed the Catholic Church for obstructing government plans to reduce the country’s birth rate and  population.  “They think that spewing out human beings by the millions is a gift from God,” he claimed, adding that health care workers should resign if they are unwilling to follow government policy on population control for reasons of conscience.

Duterte’s authoritarian diatribe clashes with a ruling of the Supreme Court of the Philippines and turns the clock back to times of harsh and extreme rhetoric when the current law (commonly called the RH Act) was being developed.  The RH Act was the product of over fourteen years of public controversy and political wrangling. It was of concern when it was enacted because it threatened some conscientious objectors with imprisonment and fines. 

In January, 2013, the Project reviewed the Act in detail.  Project criticisms about the law’s suppression of freedom of conscience were validated in April, 2014, when the Supreme Court of the Philippines struck down sections of the law as unconstitutional.

Given the long history of attempts at legislative coercion in the Philippines and President Duterte’s obvious hostility to freedom of conscience and religion in health care, the Project’s 2013 review of the RH Act is here updated and republished.

Assuming that the Philippines government’s concern about population growth in the country is justified, it does not follow that it is best addressed by the kind of state bullying exemplified by President Duterte’s ill-tempered and ill-considered eruption.  Aside from the government’s enormous practical advantage in its control of health care facilities, it has at its disposal all of the legitimate means available to democratic states to accomplish its policy goals.  Not the least of these is persuasive rational argument, an approach fully consistent with the best traditions of liberal democracy, and far less dangerous than state suppression of fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Turning back the clock

A history of coercive legislative measures

Background

The “RH Act” of 2012: General comments

The “RH Act” of 2012: Specific provisions

Freedom of conscience and religion

The Supreme Court weighs in

The way forward

Appendix “A”:  Philippines population control and management policies

Appendix “B”: The “RH Act” (2012)  in brief

Project Comments

Court challenge raises issue of “reasonable apprehension of bias”

Sean Murphy*

Documents filed in an important Canadian court case bring into question the value and purpose of “public consultations” held by medical regulators, at least in the province of Ontario.

In March, 2015, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) approved a highly controversial policy, Professional Obligations and Human Rights.  The policy requires physicians  to facilitate services or procedures to which they object for reasons of conscience by making an “effective referral” to a colleague or agency willing to provide the service.  A constitutional challenge to the policy was dismissed by  the Ontario Divisonal Court in 2018.[1] An appeal of that ruling will be heard by the Ontario Court of Appeal on January 21-22, 2019.

Among the thousands of pages filed with the trial court are a number dealing with the public consultation conducted by the CPSO from 10 December, 2014 to 20 February, 2015.  In response to its invitation to stakeholders and the public, the CPSO received 9,262 submissions about the proposal, the great majority of which opposed it.[2]

College officials  finalized the wording of the policy on 19 January, 2015,[3]   a month before the consultation ended; only about 565 submissions would have been received by then.[4]  727 submissions had been received  by the time the policy was sent to the Executive Committee on 28 January,[5]  which promptly endorsed it and forwarded it to the College Council for final approval.[6]

According to the briefing note supplied to the Council, by 11 February, 2015 the College had received 3,105 submissions.[7]  Thus, the final version of the policy was written and approved by the College Executive before about  90% of the submissions in the second consultation had been received.

Submissions received by CPSO from 10 Dec 2014 to 20 Feb 2015

During the first 40 days ending 11 February, the College received an average of about 18 submissions per day.  Assuming someone spent eight full hours every working day reading the submissions, about 22 minutes could have been devoted to each.  Three staff members dedicated to the task could have inceased this average to about an hour, so the first 700 submissions could conceivably have received appropriate attention.

Time available for analysis of submissions

However, this seems unlikely in the case of more than 8,000 submissions received later.

By 11 February about 183 submissions were arriving at the College every day, increasing to about 684 daily in the last ten days of the consultation – one every two minutes.   A College staffer working eight hours daily without a break could have spent no more than about two minutes on each submission, and only about one minute on each of those received in the last ten days  – over 65% of the total.

A minute or two was likely sufficient if College officials deemed consultation results irrelevant because they had already decided the outcome.  This conclusion is consistent with the finalization and approval of the policy  by the six member College Executive (which included the Chair of the  working group that wrote it [8]).  To do this weeks before the consultation closed was contrary to normal practice.  CPSO policy manager Andréa Foti stated that working groups submit revised drafts to the Executive Committee  after public consultations close[9] – not before.

One would expect government agencies that invite submissions on important legal and public policy issues would allow sufficient time to review and analyse all of the feedback received before making decisions. The CPSO’s failure to do so does not reflect institutional respect for thousands of individuals and groups who responded in good faith to its invitation to comment on the draft policy.  Rather, such conduct invites a reasonable apprehension of bias that is unacceptable in the administration of public institutions.

1. The Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada v. College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, 2018 ONSC 579 (Can LII)  [CMDS v CPSO].

2. CMDS v CPSO, supra note 1  (Respondent’s Application Record, Volume 1, Tab 1, Affidavit of Andréa Foti [Foti] at para 121.

3.    Foti, supra note 2 at para 133.

4. Estimated daily average based on the total received by 28 January (727).

5. CMDS v CPSO, supra note 1  (Respondent’s Application Record, Volume 4, Tab WW, Exhibit “WW” attached to the Affidavit of Andréa Foti: Executive Committee Briefing Note (February, 2015) (CPSO Exhibit WW) at 1724.

6. CMDS v CPSO, supra note 1  (Respondent’s Application Record, Volume 4, Tab XX, Exhibit “XX” attached to the Affidavit of Andréa Foti: Proceedings of the Executive Committee – Minutes – 3 February, 2015) (CPSO Exhibit XX) at 1746-1748.

7. “Council Briefing Note: Professional Obligations and Human Rights – Consultation Report & Revised Draft Policy (For Decision)” [CPSO Briefing Note 2015].  In College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, “Annual Meeting of Council, March 6, 2015” at 61.

8. Dr. Marc Gabel. See CPSO Exhibit WW, supra note 4 at 1722 (note 1), and CPSO Exhibit XX, supra note 5 at 1746.

9. Foti, supra note 2 at para 36.

Canadian Medical Association and euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada

Critical review of CMA approach to changes in policy and law

Sean Murphy*

Abstract

English | Français | Español | Deutsche | Português | bahasa Indonesia


In December, 2013, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) Board of Directors decided to shape the debate and law concerning euthanasia and assisted suicide and revisit CMA policy opposing physician participation in the procedures. By the summer of 2014 it was clear that the overwhelming majority of physicians supported the existing policy. However, it appears that the Board decided the policy should be changed before the Supreme Court of Canada decided the case of Carter v. Canada.

The Board sponsored an ostensibly neutral resolution affirming support for the right of physicians to follow their conscience in deciding whether or not to provide euthanasia/assisted suicide if the law changed. The resolution was overwhelmingly approved. Unnoticed at the time was that the resolution was not conditional upon eligibility criteria, such as decision-making capacity or terminal illness.

The CMA intervention at the Supreme Court of Canada in the Carter case emphasized that existing CMA policy against euthanasia and assisted suicide would be changed to reflect the resolution. It conveyed the message that the Association would support physicians who decided to participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide no matter how broadly the Court or legislatures might cast the rules governing the procedures.

The Board reversed CMA policy about two months before the Court ruled. It formally approved physician assisted suicide and euthanasia, subject only to legal constraints. The policy did not exclude minors, the incompetent or the mentally ill, nor did it limit euthanasia and assisted suicide to the terminally ill or those with uncontrollable pain. It classified both as “end of life care,” promising support for patient access to the procedures should they be legalized. Support for physicians refusing to participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide was qualified by the statement that there should be no “undue delay” in providing them. Implicit in all of this was a new ethical paradigm: that in some circumstances, physicians have a professional obligation to kill patients or to help them kill themselves.

The new policy effectively wrote a blank cheque for the Supreme Court of Canada to legalize euthanasia and physician assisted suicide on any terms acceptable to the judges. After the Court struck down the law CMA officials expressed concern about the criteria set by the Court. It was implied that the Supreme Court was to blame for anxiety and profound discomfort among Canadian physicians because it had imposed upon them an obligation to kill, contrary to centuries of medical ethics and practice.

However, the concerns voiced by CMA officials after the Carter ruling existed when the CMA intervened in the case, and the CMA did not raise them then. In fact, the Supreme Court gave legal effect to a policy the CMA had already adopted, and the criteria the Court set for the procedures were actually more restrictive than anything the CMA had proposed. The Court cannot be blamed because CMA leaders were ill-prepared to deal with the consequences of a ruling entirely consistent with their own policy.

The consequences fell most heavily upon physicians who refused, for reasons of conscience, to provide euthanasia and assisted suicide or to collaborate in providing the services by referral or other means. Since Carter, the debate in Canada has been largely about whether or under what circumstances physicians and institutions should be allowed to refuse to provide or facilitate the services. While it is generally agreed that physicians should not be compelled to personally provide them, there are strident demands that physicians unwilling to kill their patients or help them commit suicide should be forced to refer patients to someone who will.

This review demonstrates that the CMA Board of Directors focus in 2014 was on the role physicians would play in providing euthanasia and assisted suicide should the law change. The Board knew that the overwhelming majority of Canadian physicians would refuse to participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide. The fundamental conflict presented by imposing an obligation to kill upon unwilling physicians was foreseeable and had been foreseen by CMA officials. Attacks upon physician freedom of conscience, particularly with respect to referral, were predictable.

However, the Board failed to consider physician freedom of conscience in relation to assisted suicide and euthanasia except the extent that it could be used to further its policy goals. As a result, after the Carter ruling, CMA officials were quite unprepared to mount a cogent, articulate and persuasive defence of physician freedom of conscience, especially in relation to referral. They discovered that state authorities and the public were often unreceptive and even hostile to physicians unwilling to arrange for patients to be killed by someone else. Negotiating at a significant disadvantage of their own making, they were desperate to find a policy “acceptable to the regulators” and to objecting physicians whose fundamental freedoms they had rashly jeopardized.

The CMA has since produced a strong defence of physician freedom of conscience in relation to referral for euthanasia and assisted suicide, and sound protection of conscience provisions have been incorporated into a revised CMA policy on the procedures. However, by the time these statements appeared, objecting physicians were on the defensive in a treacherous and even hostile environment, compelled to launch an expensive constitutional challenge to defend fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion. The outcome of that case will determine if they will be able to continue to practise medicine if they refuse to collaborate in killing their patients.

The World Medical Association (WMA) national medical associations are free to decide to change their policies on physician participation in euthanasia or assisted suicide. This review demonstrates that they should not follow the example of the Canadian Medical Association if they wish to safeguard the fundamental freedoms of physicians and health care workers. [Full Text]

Supreme Court of Canada respect for physician freedom of conscience and religion is not “a cop-out”

Responding to “Patient rights – even in death – must trump a doctor’s discomfort.” Globe and Mail, 1 February, 2016

Sean Murphy*

According to André Picard, the Supreme Court of Canada decided last year that patients could ask to be killed by physicians or ask physicians to help them commit suicide, but physicians could not be compelled “to actually kill a patient.” He describes this as “a perfectly reasonable balancing and reconciling of rights.”1

Indeed, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that physicians should not be forced to actually kill a patient. However, Mr. Picard is mistaken when he claims that the Supreme Court of Canada reconciled or balanced the rights of patients and physicians in the Carter ruling. The Court did not even attempt to do so, stating, instead, that patient and physician rights “will need to be reconciled.”2

With respect to physicians, the Court stated that “nothing” in the ruling would compel physicians to “provide” or “participate in” euthanasia or assisted suicide. This is precisely the language and thinking adopted by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) in its policy framework.3 Mr. Picard is clearly angry about this, calling it “a cop-out that creates real barriers for desperately ill patients,” one that “regulators and legislators cannot and should not accept.”

However, in the face of the Carter ruling, Mr. Picard cannot expect the CMA, regulators and legislators to impose his deeply held personal belief that refusing to compel physicians to provide or participate in homicide or assisted suicide is an unacceptable “cop-out.”

Mr. Picard clearly prefers the policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) on “effective referral,” which demands that physicians who refuse “to actually kill a patient” must help find someone willing to do the actual killing.

Contrary to his claim that effective referral is a “well-established policy,” it was first imposed by the CPSO in Ontario last year in the face of overwhelming opposition, on the basis of deficient, erroneous and seriously misleading briefing materials, and without evidence that even a single person in Ontario had ever been unable to access medical services because of conscientious objection by a physician.4 It is the subject of an ongoing constitutional court challenge,5 and is not supported by the BC Civil Liberties Association – one of the driving forces behind Carter’s challenge to the law.6 None of this seems to concern Mr. Picard.

“Patient need takes precedence over physician discomfort,” he says, “and patient rights trump physician rights.”

However, the CMA’s Dr. Jeff Blackmer told the joint parliamentary committee on assisted dying that this is a false dichotomy. There are enough physicians willing to provide euthanasia or assisted suicide to meet the expected demand, he said, and other jurisdictions do not require “effective referral” by objecting physicians but there is no difficulty with access.7

“This should not be a debate between patient access OR the right to conscientious objection by health care professionals,” writes CMA President, Dr. Cindy Forbes. “We can absolutely accomplish both.”8

Mr. Picard’s demand that physicians must get over discomfort about killing people at least to the extent that they will contract out the actual killing no doubt reflects his deeply held personal beliefs. However, if the real goal is to ensure access – not ideologically driven ethical cleansing – there is no reason to demand that physicians do what they believe to be wrong. If the real goal is to ensure access to services – not to punish objecting physicians – that goal is best served by connecting patients with physicians willing to help them, and that can be done without demanding “effective referral.”

Notes

1. Picard A. “Patient rights – even in death – must trump a doctor’s discomfort.” Globe and Mail, 1 February, 2016 (Accessed 2016-02-04).

2. Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, para. 132. (Accessed 2016-02-04).

3. Canadian Medical Association,  Principles-based Recommendations for a Canadian Approach to Assisted Dying (2016) (Accessed 2016-01-09).

4. Protection of Conscience Project, Submission to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan (5 June, 2015) Re: Conscientious Refusal (as revised). Appendix “A”: Ontario College briefing materials .

5. Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Between the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada et al and College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, Notice of Application, 20 March, 2015. Court File 15-63717.

6. Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, Report of Proceedings (Hansard), Select Standing Committee on Health. Wednesday, July 15, 2015, Issue No. 17, p. 270 (Accessed 2016-02-02).

7. Special Joint Committee on Physician Assisted Dying, Evidence: Wednesday, January 27, 2016. (Accessed 2016-02-04)

8. Forbes C. “Time for myth-busting on assisted dying.” Canadian Medical Association (4 February, 2016)