Promises, promises

Canadian law reformers promise tolerance, freedom of conscience

What happens after the law is changed is another story.

Sean Murphy*

Now let me finally cut to the chase, to the heart of this appeal.  The most vociferous opposition to our challenge comes from some church groups, and some disabled organizations.  To the church groups we simply say that we respect your religious views, but they cannot, in this secular society,  trump our clients’ constitutional rights.  And no one is suggesting that a physician who has a religious objection to assisting a patient with his or her death must do so.
Joseph Arvay, Q.C., Oral Submission to the Supreme Court of Canada,  Carter v. Canada, 15 October, 2014

Introduction

With the passage of the Quebec euthanasia law and the pending decision in Carter v. Canada in the Supreme Court of Canada, physicians, medical students, nurses and other health care workers opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide for reasons of conscience are confronted by the prospect that laws against the procedures will be struck down or changed.  They may wonder what the future holds for them if that happens.

Will they be forced to provide or assist with something they find morally abhorrent?  If they refuse to do so, will they be disadvantaged, discriminated against, disciplined, sued or fired?  Will they be forced out of their specialty or profession, or forced to emigrate if they wish to continue in it?

The realpolitik of law reform

These questions have been largely ignored, since much of the public debate about euthanasia and assisted suicide has been about whether or not the procedures should be legalized, not about what effect legalization might have on freedom of conscience, particularly among health care workers.  Opponents of legalization understandably decline to raise the issue because they are concerned that doing so would compromise the message they want to deliver.

Advocates of legalization, on the other hand, generally recognize that support for euthanasia and assisted suicide may begin to evaporate if it appears that they intend to force unwilling physicians or health care workers to participate in killing patients.  In particular, they do not wish to alienate members of the health care community who, on principle or as a matter of prudent self-interest, would not support such a coercive policy.  Instead, they adopt a reassuring posture of respect for freedom of conscience and tolerance for opposing views within the medical profession.

It is instructive to see how this strategy has been applied in the case of the Quebec euthanasia law and the Carter case, and then to consider how it was applied in the case abortion, another morally controversial procedure.  While we cannot predict the future, we are now in a position to judge the worth of the assurances given when abortion was legalized over forty years ago, and to apply that judgement to assurances now being made about euthanasia. [Full Text]

Redefining the Practice of Medicine- Euthanasia in Quebec, Part 5: An Obligation to Kill

Abstract

Statistics from jurisdictions where euthanasia and/or assisted suicide are legal suggest that the majority of physicians do not participate directly in the procedures.  Statistics in Oregon and Washington state indicate that the proportion of licensed physicians directly involved in assisted suicide is extremely small.  At most, 2.31% of all Belgian physicians were directly involved in reported euthanasia cases, and the actual number could be much lower.  A maximum of 9% to 12% of all Dutch physicians have been directly involved, most of them general practitioners.  The current situation in Belgium and the Netherlands suggests that, for some time to come, a substantial majority of Quebec physicians will probably not lethally inject patients or provide second opinions supporting the practice.

It is anticipated that between 150 and 600 patients will be killed annually in Quebec by lethal injection or otherwise under the MAD protocol authorized by ARELC.  While these estimates amount to only a small percentage of the deaths in the province each year, and while Quebec has about 8,000 physicians in general practice, there is concern that only a minority of physicians will be willing to provide euthanasia, and it may be difficult to implement ARELC.

The reason for the concern appears to be that ARELC purports to establish MAD as a legal “right” that can be exercised and enforced anywhere in the province, but physicians willing to provide the service are unlikely to be found everywhere.  As a result, in some areas, if no physicians are willing to provide MAD services, patients wanting euthanasia may be unable to exercise the “right” guaranteed by the statute.

Rather than deny either patients’ access to euthanasia or physicians’ freedom of conscience, several mechanisms have been proposed to accommodate both.  Delegation is not permitted by law, and transfer of patients will not normally be feasible.  However, workable alternatives include the advance identification of willing physicians in each region, the use of electronic communcation services to permit remote consultation and the establishment of mobile “flying squads” of euthanatists to provide services not otherwise available in some parts of the province.

Euthanasia proponents deny that they intend to force physicians to personally kill patients, but the exercise of freedom of conscience by objecting physicians who refuse to kill patients can lead to unjust discrimination against them.  Discriminatory screening of physicians unwilling to kill patients can be effected by denying them employment in their specialties and denying them hospital privileges.  By such strategies one can truthfully affirm that physicians are not actually being forced to kill, although those unwilling to do so may be forced to change specialties, leave the profession or emigrate. [Full Text]

Redefining the Practice of Medicine- Euthanasia in Quebec, Part 4: The Problem of Killing

Abstract

Impartiality, complicity and perversityThe original text of Bill 52 did not define “medical aid dying” (MAD), but it was understood that, whatever the law actually said, it was meant to authorize physicians to kill patients who met MAD guidelines.  The Minister of Health admitted that it qualifed as homicide, while others acknowledged that MAD meant intentionally causing the death of a person, and that its purpose was death.  Various witnesses in favour of the bill referred explicitly to lethal injection and the speed of the expected death of a patient.

Given the moral or ethical gravity involved in killing, it is not surprising to find serious disagreement about MAD among health care workers.  Conflicting claims made about the extent of opposition to or support for euthanasia within health care professions are difficult to evaluate, but a review of the transcripts of the legislative committee hearings into Bill 52 is instructive.

One physician member of the committee was shocked by the assertion that there is no  moral, ethical, or legal difference betwen withdrawing life support and lethally injecting a patient.  Hospices and palliative care physicians rejected participation in euthanasia.  Sharp differences of opinion among other health care workers were reported.  Support for killing patients by lethal injection was likened to support for the death penalty; that is, many more agreed with the act in principle than were willing to do the actual killing.  So marked was the evidence of opposition to euthanasia that doubts were raised about the possiblity of implementing the law.

Since the law was passed as a result of assurances from the Quebec medical establishment that it could be implemented, a committee member who is now a minister of the Quebec government warned that they would be called to account if it is found that few physicians are willing to participate.  This political pressure is likely to provide an additional incentive for the medical establishment to secure the compliance of Quebec physicians.

The introduction of euthanasia into Quebec’s health care system is to be accomplished using the structures and powers established by other Quebec statutes that govern the delivery of health care in the province, which have established a multi-layered and overlapping bureaucracy of committees, councils, commissions, boards, directors, examiners, coordinators, syndics and commissioners.  Physicians and other health care providers who object to euthanasia will find their working environments increasingly controlled by a MAD matrix functioning within this system, a prominent feature of which is an emphasis on patient rights.

Everyone authorized to enact or supervise adherence to policies or standards can become a MAD functionary, using codes of ethics, protocols, guidelines, directives, etc. to normalize euthanasia. Similarly, every disciplinary and complaints procedure can be used to force participation in MAD services.  Those who openly advocate refusal to provide or facilitate euthanasia can be fined from $1,500.00 to $40,000.00 per day under Quebec’s  Professional Code if they are deemed to have helped, encouraged, advised or consented to a member of a profession violating the profession’s code of ethics. [Full Text]