National Column: Assisted-dying bill exploited by all sides

by Tim Harper

When it comes to physician-assisted dying, should the beliefs of a health-care institution trump a charter right of a suffering patient?

It shouldn’t, but we may ultimately get to that point.

That is only one result of the curiously timid legislation on assisted dying introduced last week by the Liberals.

It may forever be a mystery why a government that so loudly trumpeted respect for the charter of rights, a government very early in a muscular majority mandate with political capital bulging from their pockets moved so tentatively on assisted dying.

A government that went big on refugees, purports to go big on climate change with a prime minister given to big, sweeping pronouncements instead went small in physician-assisted dying.

It created a void that is rapidly being filled by progressives who are understandably upset that the rights of those suffering grievously from mental illness, mature minors, or those who wish to provide advance directives have not been respected in this legislation, providing two tiers of those who are eligible to die with dignity.

It also left enough holes in the legislation for conservative opponents, in this case, many of Canada’s churches, to exploit concerns from their perspective.

They arrived on Parliament Hill on the eve of debate on Bill C-14, intent on exploiting a weakness in the legislation that gives them much room to manoeuvre on their flank.

Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Catholic archbishop of Toronto, argues that taxpayer-funded Catholic health institutions should maintain that public funding while refusing to follow the law of the land – assisting those who fit the restrictive criteria for such death.

In Collins’s view, it would appear that the religious beliefs of the institution should trump the charter rights of patients suffering intolerably with death “reasonably foreseen.”

Collins sees no conflict.

No hospital, chronic-care facility or hospice in this country is compelled to provide every medical procedure and service available in this country, he says.

He also rejects the notion that assisted dying now becomes a charter right. It is a legal right, Collins told me, but the “charter right” argument is a construct not supported by evidence, a notion put forward by a Commons-Senate committee that veered “wildly” in directions unpalatable to Canadians, at least in Collins’s view.

There could have been no assisted-dying legislation introduced by any government of any political stripe that would have been backed by the Catholic Church in this country.

That parliamentary committee that so alarmed the Catholic Church provided a bold, progressive view of what could have been in this legislation – which likely guaranteed much of it would be
ignored, replaced by that most milquetoast of pledges to deliver a law that provides “balance” between competing views.

One should cringe when they hear about a law that claims to “balance” concerns on both sides.

More often than not, it merely inflames both sides of the debate and satisfies no one.

That committee recommended that health-care practitioners’ “freedom of conscience” should be respected, but it would have compelled an objecting practitioner “at a minimum” to provide an effective referral for a patient. It also recommended that Ottawa work with the provinces and
territories to ensure all publicly funded health-care institutions provide medical assistance in dying.

Physicians in faith-based care institutions maintain their charter rights would be violated if they were forced to even refer a patient to a consenting physician.

They put forward a proposal in which an independent assessment team would deal with a patient who may be choosing assisted death. If the patient wished to go that route, the faith-based doctor would pass over all files but make no referral themselves.

It may satisfy health-care practitioners but needlessly heaps more hurdles in front of those who are dying and wish to have their pain alleviated.

Collins said faith-based institutions receive public funding because they provide much-needed services, but such nursing homes, hospitals, hospices or other facilities should never be forced by government to provide services that are contrary to their roles as “havens of hope” in this country.

Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka of Ottawa went further, when he suggested that demanding doctors terminate life or be complicit in that act would make the physician “complicit in murder.”

The legislation, of course, clearly spells out the opposite.

The church and its health-care providers may see a way out. But it puts institutions ahead of the rights of dying patients.

The blame for that rests with a government that gives the church the room to take that road.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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