Catholic health provider cautious about assisted dying ahead of new law

An internal memo from a Roman Catholic health-care provider in Vancouver reminds its leadership team that physician-assisted dying violates the Catholic faith and until the law changes the service will not be provided.

VANCOUVER — An internal memo from a Roman Catholic health-care provider in Vancouver reminds its leadership team that physician-assisted dying violates the Catholic faith and until the law changes the service will not be provided.

The memo from management at Providence Health Care says that while the organization currently forbids the practice, it will monitor and conform to the law as it takes shape. Providence operates 10 facilities, including St. Paul’s, the only hospital in Vancouver’s West End.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the ban on physician-assisted dying, and the government has until June 6 to come up with replacement legislation.

“(Physician-assisted dying) contradicts the basic tenets of Catholic health care, wherein life is held to be sacred from conception to natural death, and not permitted in Catholic health care institutions such as Providence,” read the memo, dated Feb. 16.

Requests for assisted suicide from patients who have secured the required exemption from B.C. Supreme Court will be treated on a case-by-case basis to find a final solution, said the document.

“This will be done presumably within the interim structures established in other health-care facilities in the region.”

The memo came to light as parliamentarians tasked with exploring how Canada should craft its assisted-suicide laws recommended that all publicly funded hospitals be required to offer the right to die to clearly consenting adults suffering intolerably from irremediable medical conditions.

Their report encourages legislators to take into account a doctor’s right to conscientiously object, but also calls for regulations that require those physicians to provide a patient with a referral.

The Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience criticized the committee report on Thursday for not going far enough to protect the rights of health-care workers and facilities.

Forcing these institutions to offer a service that infringes on their religious beliefs tramples on their constitutional right to freedom of conscience and religion, said Larry Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, in a statement.

Assisted-suicide advocates celebrated the news, describing the committees conclusions as thoughtful and balanced.

Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada, singled out the recommendation that the service be available at all publicly funded medical facilities.

“This is one of the pieces where the rubber is going to hit the road for access,” Gokool said.

“These are institutions that receive public funds and they should honour patients’ charter rights to an assisted death.”

A faith-based organization’s moral positions may not reflect the beliefs of all of its staff, she added.

B.C. Humanist Association executive director Ian Bushfield said he was pleased with the work that came out of parliamentary committee. The association provides a voice for atheists, agnostics and non-religious in B.C.

Bushfield expressed frustration over Providence Health Care’s stance on assisted suicide.

“There are religious viewpoints that oppose blood transfusions,” he said, making an analogy to religious opposition to physician-assisted dying.

“Yet I can’t imagine we would be OK as a society funding a hospital that refused to provide blood transfusions and having it be the main hospital in downtown Vancouver.”

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