Scarborough health practitioners stand against assisted suicide

Doctors seek protection from policy requiring them to make referral

A number of local healthcare practitioners fear their right to choose whether or not they participate in providing assisted suicide to patients is being taken away from them.

Assisted suicide became legal in Canada in June 2016.

The Canadian law to allow medical assistance in dying (MAID) followed a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that struck down the law forbidding physician assisted dying, saying the old law violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The federal law, however, makes no indication that healthcare professionals would have to participate in MAID.

But, a College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario policy requires practitioners who conscientiously object to MAID to provide an effective referral to a non-objecting, available and accessible physician, nurse practitioner or agency.

This is what members of the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience are opposed to and are asking the Ontario government to protect them against.

Ontario is in the midst of establishing MAID laws in the province through Bill 84, which has been ordered for third reading. As it is currently written, Bill 84 has no provision that protects physicians and nurse practitioners who conscientiously object to MAID. Without such a provision, they are required to make an effective referral to another doctor who could participate in MAID or be subject to discipline.

Scarborough palliative care physician Natalia Novosedlik, a Coalition member whose job is to provide medical care to people near the end of their life, said assisted death is contrary to why she practices medicine.

“I really feel we’re here to heal and to support people. To me that can’t include ending life,” she said.

“I feel that if I were to make a referral and directly be responsible for engaging a patient in a process which has the potential to lead to their life being ended, that to me is a form of active participation in the act of ending a life.”

Novosedlik has been active in Toronto, particularly in Scarborough where she lives and practices medicine, in spreading her message. She has been speaking at churches and asking people to write letters to their MPPs to amend Bill 84 so that doctors be protected.

Scarborough registered nurse Helen McGee who has provided care to people suffering from mental illness is concerned what MAID laws could mean for her patients. Mental illness alone is not enough to qualify a person for MAID, but mental illness and another disease, such as cancer, is. She worries that future amendments to the law could allow for mental illness to be the sole reason for MAID.

Currently, palliative care and mental health care are both underfunded, making them inaccessible for many people, McGee and Novosedlik said, which could be a factor in many MAID requests.

The two women, who spoke at the legislature asking Ontario’s government to establish a law that protects conscientious objectors, say other jurisdictions have found ways to provide medically induced death without requiring medical practitioners to be active participants.

Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Dr. Eric Hoskins did not respond to requests for comment.