Published Friday, April 22nd 2016
Toronto Sun, Calgary Sun, Ottawa Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
Prof. Ian Gentles, Research Director of the DeVeber Institutes for Bioethics and Social Research
The government’s bill on assisted dying is a vast improvement over what the Parliamentary Committee recommended -- such as assisted suicide for children, and for the mentally ill.
Given the recent experience at Attawapiskat the last thing we need is easier access to suicide for teenagers. Depression is a treatable psychological condition, and a depressed person is the last one who should be allowed to opt for assisted suicide.
But there are still three big things wrong with Bill C-14: it doesn’t give real freedom of conscience to medical professionals and hospitals; it does nothing for the large number of people who don’t want assisted dying; and, lastly, it does nothing to remedy the desperate shortage of high-quality palliative care in this country.
Freedom of conscience doesn’t just mean the right not to give the pill or lethal injection, but also the right not to refer a patient to a doctor who will. Why not? For the same reason that a doctor should not be required to refer someone for what is politely called female circumcision -- – a.k.a. genital mutilation.
This practice remains legal in several countries. A doctor who referred a patient for female circumcision would share in the guilt of the act. The same is true of assisted suicide.The principle applies with even greater force to hospitals whose founding principles do not permit the taking of human life.
Yet Bill C-14 leaves conscience rights to the regulation of provincial health ministers. Will Catholic hospitals be shut down because they refuse to practise ‘medically-assisted dying’?
The reality is that many Canadians don’t want anything to do with medically-assisted dying. They fear it and want protection from it. These people should be allowed, for themselves and their loved ones, ‘safe spaces’ in the health care system where assisted suicide is not practised. Bill C-14 ignores this large group of people.
There is a simple solution. The bill should require the Federal Department of Health to publish a list of physicians, hospitals and palliative-care facilities that offer assisted dying, or are willing to refer for it. At the same time, the Department should publish a list of physicians and medical institutions that will not offer this service.
The first list would mean that nobody who desires assistance in dying need ask an unwilling doctor to refer them. The second list would mean that the many who are fearful of assisted suicide will be able to find a doctor and a care facility dedicated to preserving life rather than ending it.
They will not have to ask themselves, when the doctor enters their room with a syringe in hand, 'Is this doctor my caregiver? Or my executioner?'
In any case, there is a proven way to keep the demand for assisted suicide low: make high-quality palliative care available to all.
It has been documented that when good palliative care is offered the demand for assisted dying virtually evaporates. Barely 30% of Canadians have access to good palliative care.
When we drop off our loved one at Emergency, we shouldn’t have to worry over what might be suggested to them while we are parking the car. In reality there will be no genuine freedom of choice in the matter of dying so long as the majority of Canadians lack access to high-quality palliative care. Bill C-14 should make the provision of palliative care mandatory for everyone who needs it.
Ian Gentles is Research Director of the DeVeber Institutes for Bioethics, and co-author, with Jean Echlin, of It’s Not That Simple: Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Today.