Decriminalization of assisted suicide and the violation of our
9 January, 2015
Reproduced with permission
Note: This article appeared
about one month before the Supreme Court of Canada ordered the
legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
In October, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the Carter
case, where parties are challenging Criminal Code
prohibitions on physician assisted suicide in the hopes of
decriminalizing it. If they're successful, it will impact more than
In the Carter case, I acted for two groups of Protestant
and Catholic physicians and a group of Catholic healthcare
institutions. We argued that life is sacred and that assisted
suicide should not be decriminalized, but we went on to argue more.
The physicians argued that killing was not medicine and the Catholic
healthcare institutions argued that providing dignity in death to
the terminally ill and suffering was accomplished through palliative
care and spiritual care, not through prematurely ending patient
Beyond that, and most importantly, both groups pleaded with the
Court to protect freedom of religion and freedom of conscience
should it decide to decriminalize assisted suicide. In short, the
physicians asked that should the Court legalize assisted suicide,
that it rule that physicians who object to the practice on moral or
religious grounds cannot be compelled to engage in the practice.
Similarly, the Catholic healthcare institutions asked that they not
be required to offer assisted suicide in their facilities on the
grounds that doing so would violate Catholic teaching.
Since the case was heard, I have been involved in numerous
discussions regarding the impact decriminalization will have on
physicians' conscience and religious rights and the rights of
faith-based healthcare institutions. We have been developing
policies and practices to protect these professionals and
institutions. Many physicians and all faith-based healthcare
institutions are obviously in a very vulnerable position here. In
Ontario, the College of Physicians and Surgeon's has released two
draft policies which would require physicians who object to assisted
suicide on moral or religious grounds to provide referrals to a
physician who will assist a patient in ending their life.
Recently however, and as a result of a discussion with a fellow
religious freedom lawyer, I realized that decriminalization will
impact the religious freedom and conscience rights of many others.
Of course, this includes all others in the health care field such as
nurses, hospital staff and those working in the fields of psychology
Lawyers who prepare wills and practice estate planning may be
faced with scenarios where their clients ask them to prepare
documents which conflict with their religious or moral beliefs. It
is not uncommon for people preparing a power of attorney for
personal care to include instructions regarding extreme or heroic
life-sustaining measures. For example, many of these powers of
attorney will say something along the lines of "I do not wish to
have my life unduly prolonged by any course of treatment or any
other medical procedure which offers no reasonable expectation of my
recovery from life threatening physical or mental incapacity".
This language is common and does not, to my knowledge, conflict
with Christian teaching. There is a difference between accepting
that a life has come to an end and taking active steps to end a
life. With the decriminalization of assisted suicide however,
lawyers may have clients request the inclusion of language which
would ask that they be euthanized in certain particular
circumstances. I don't practice estate law, but my religious and
moral convictions would preclude me from assisting a client in
preparing such a power of attorney. If and when this type of
scenario occurs, will the lawyer be permitted to opt-out from
engaging in these kinds of activities? Will the lawyer be
disciplined by his or her regulatory body? Only time will tell, but
it is an issue Christian lawyers need to consider.
Another group of individuals who may be affected are chaplains,
and particularly those operating under state programs. Many
universities, all prisons and each branch of the military provide
chaplaincy services. While some chaplains are specifically Catholic
chaplains or Anglican chaplains, others play an interfaith role and
provide spiritual counselling. In all cases however, the chaplain
has his or her own religious and moral convictions. While chaplains
endeavour to minister to people of different faiths, the chaplain
remains entitled to his or her own religious beliefs. If assisted
suicide is decriminalized, will chaplains be required to support, in
their counselling and ministry, a person's decision to end their own
lives? Will chaplains be barred from, or reprimanded for counselling
against suicide? What about a member of the military who has been
seriously injured and sees no value in continuing his or her life?
Will the chaplain be barred from ministering to that person in an
effort to show them that they remain valuable in God's eyes?
Chaplains operating under government programs need to be thinking
about this issue and considering how they will respond to the
decriminalization of assisted suicide.
These are two groups of individuals that I see as being directly
affected by the decriminalization of assisted suicide, but there are
certainly others. Will medical insurers be allowed to refuse to pay
for expensive medications if they instead offer to pay for
already happened in Oregon, where assisted-suicide is legal.
Will it be a reality in Canada? Could paramedics responding to an
attempted suicide face assault charges if they save intervene to
save the person's life? If suicide is a legal right, as was argued in
the Carter case, how can the state interfere with someone's
attempt to end their life? Will campaigns directed at reducing or
limiting instances of suicide now be barred for being
discriminatory? If suicide is a legal right, how can we justify
calling it an evil or a societal tragedy? Will teachers, priests,
pastors and counsellors be reprimanded or disciplined if they
counsel someone against ending their life? What about the various
suicide hotlines? Will they be barred from counselling against
I believe that decriminalizing assisted suicide is not supported
in law, is bad for society and will result in the devaluing of human
life. Some people disagree with me, but have they and has the
Supreme Court of Canada really considered all of the implications of
going down that road? It's a Pandora's Box that will impact our
country and society in ways we may even have imagined.