Doctor-assisted dying: Why religious conscience must be part of the debate

Published in The Globe and Mail on March 16th, 2016. Click here to read the article on their site.

The competing rights of freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and access to physician-assisted death are at an impasse in Canada. When the Supreme Court last year struck down Criminal Code prohibitions on doctor-assisted death, the issue of conscience rights jumped urgently into the national discussion. A religiously informed conscience complicates things further, and thousands of health-care professionals and hundreds of religiously based health-care institutions are demanding that their Charter rights be protected.

If the recommendations from the parliamentary committee for new legislation are accepted and approved by the June 6 deadline, Canada would be by far the most liberal country in the world for medical assistance in dying. It would also become the most repressive on conscience rights, because the committee recommended that conscientious objectors refer death-seeking patients to another doctor or health-care facility – something that many people informed by a sense of duty to God and neighbour cannot do.

“These positions were made without listening to the legitimate Charter rights of an affected minority group, who are mainly Christians,” said Larry Worthen of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada.

In addition to concerns that the rights of freedom of religion and of conscience and freedom from discrimination will be denied to its Christian members, Mr. Worthen’s group has heard from Muslims and humanists worried that the legislation will violate their conscientious application of the Hippocratic Oath.

Five thousand physicians are registered with the Coalition for Healthcare and Conscience, in which both Mr. Worthen’s group and various Catholic organizations have presented a solution to the impasse. They want government to create a third-party agency that would give patients direct access to an assessment adviser who would provide resources and support to connect patients to physicians and facilities that provide assisted death or euthanasia. This would respect conscience rights of doctors and health-care facilities, such as the hundreds of religiously based facilities operating with public funds. The Canadian Medical Association has also recommended the approach, and six provincial health regulators have approved having an assessment-adviser agency.

But the real gulf we must overcome is the argument that there is no room for religious conscience in publicly funded health care. Elizabeth McMaster, who started Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children from her Baptist women’s Bible study group, would roll over in her grave at the thought. Jewish and Catholic legacies have made vital contributions to the health-care institutions used by everyone, including secularists, today. We would do well, for example, to turn to religious orders for solutions to palliative-care needs.

Instead, we have a dangerously divided societal approach that keeps religious conviction out of any process that informs the public good. A diverse society should be concerned not only with protecting conscience rights of religious citizens, but should also extend the debate to what we can learn from each other’s values.

What meaning do we find when faith-filled views inform procedural choices about dying? What insight is there in the religious teaching that the lives of others are to be valued above your own? I can’t help but hope to be first in line to be treated by anyone whose conscience would offer up that kind of care.