Canadian Medical Association and euthanasia and assisted suicide in Canada

Critical review of CMA approach to changes in policy and law

Sean Murphy*

Abstract

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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]

Medical Assistance in Dying at a paediatric hospital

Carey DeMichelis, Randi Zlotnik Shaul, Adam Rapoport

Journal of Medical Ethics

Abstract

This article explores the ethical challenges of providing Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) in a paediatric setting. More specifically, we focus on the theoretical questions that came to light when we were asked to develop a policy for responding to MAID requests at our tertiary paediatric institution. We illuminate a central point of conceptual confusion about the nature of MAID that emerges at the level of practice, and explore the various entailments for clinicians and patients that would flow from different understandings. Finally, we consider the ethical challenges of building policy on what is still an extremely controversial social practice. While MAID is currently available to capable patients in Canada who are 18 years or older—a small but important subsection of the population our hospital serves—we write our policy with an eye to the near future when capable young people may gain access to MAID. We propose that an opportunity exists for MAID-providing institutions to reduce social stigma surrounding this practice, but not without potentially serious consequences for practitioners and institutions themselves. Thus, this paper is intended as a road map through the still-emerging legal and ethical landscape of paediatric MAID. We offer a view of the roads taken and considered along the way, and our justifications for travelling the paths we chose. By providing a record of our in-progress thinking, we hope to stimulate wider discussion about the issues and questions encountered in this work.


DeMichelis C, Zlotnik Shaul R, Rapoport A. Medical Assistance in Dying at a paediatric hospital. J Med Ethics 2019;45:60-67.

Is Euthanasia Psychiatric Treatment? The Struggle With Death on Request in the Netherlands

Damiaan Denys

A 42-year-old married woman with three children was referred to our department for treatment of treatment-resistant depression. Pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, and ECT were unsuccessful. We applied deep brain stimulation, which was partially effective and reduced depressive symptoms by 30%, but the patient still suffered. During our struggle to find optimal deep brain stimulation parameters in the course of treatment, the patient requested that her general physician provide euthanasia. Following guidelines in the Netherlands, our team was consulted, but we disapproved because her suffering was not prospectless and there still were treatment options with deep brain stimulation. Although we had treated her intensively for 2 years, our advice was disregarded. Eight weeks later we received the obituary of the patient.


Denys D. Is Euthanasia Psychiatric Treatment? The Struggle With Death on Request in the Netherlands. Am J Psychiatry. 2018 Sep 1;175(9):822-823. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.18060725.

Providing medical assistance in dying: Practice perspectives

Jessica Shaw, Ellen Wiebe, Amelia Nuhn, Sheila Holmes, Michaela Kelly, Alanna Just

Abstract

Canadian Family Physician

OBJECTIVE: To explore the experiences of the first cohort of physicians to offer medical assistance in dying (MAID) in British Columbia. DESIGN: Qualitative study using semistructured, one-on-one interviews.

SETTING: British Columbia.

PARTICIPANTS: Eight physicians who offered MAID in British Columbia in 2016. METHODS: The physicians were interviewed by telephone or by e-mail between 4 and 6 months after MAID was made legal in Canada, with follow-up in January 2017. Interviews were audiorecorded, transcribed, and analyzed through qualitative thematic analysis.

MAIN FINDINGS: Participants believed that MAID was rewarding and satisfying work. They explained that some of the structural and emotional challenges related to providing MAID included the following: the refusal of faith-based institutions to provide information about MAID to patients, as well as their refusal to allow assessments or deaths to occur on site; having to deny MAID to patients who did not qualify for it; disagreements with colleagues who did not support the provision of MAID; dealing with the grief of family and friends who were present at the death; and feeling like they were always on call. While a few participants thought that the legislative restrictions of Bill C-14 were appropriate in the beginning when MAID was first available in Canada, most would like to see changes to the legislation to make it more aligned with the intent of the Carter decision, including broadening the eligibility criteria to include mature minors and people with advanced psychiatric diagnoses, having the ability to honour advance directives, and removing the requirement of death being in the reasonably foreseeable future for patients with grievous and irremediable conditions.

CONCLUSION: Physicians in this study explained that providing MAID is rewarding work; however, there are many challenges that complicate their ability to offer MAID to patients. The current MAID legislation in Canada should be updated to better serve the needs of patients.


Shaw J, Wiebe E, Nuhn A, Holmes S, Kelly M, Just A. Providing medical assistance in dying: Practice perspectives. Can Fam Physician. 2018 Sep;64(9):e394-e399.