In a recent opinion column, Cynthia Clark attacks policy proposals on medical assistance in dying (MAID) presented at the recent United Conservative Party convention. It’s worth noting that, even if passed, these proposals might never be adopted by the Alberta government, or might be revised along the way.
Nonetheless, some of the proposals make sense, especially those protecting freedom of conscience for Alberta health-care professionals. Before discussing that, it’s worth touching on terminology. MAID is a euphemism for assisted suicide, coined by the Trudeau government in a bid to make the act socially acceptable.
Many Canadians opposed the legalization of assisted suicide and the common habit of describing it as medical care or treatment. In her column, Clark underscores what she terms the “vast” difference between encouraging a patients to end their life, and making them “aware of all the care options . . . available.”
The difference is not vast, but often quite subtle. That’s because those who are “informing” the patient typically include doctors whose strong influence over patient choices, including end-of-life choices, is undeniable. That’s without weighing the influence of pro-MAID doctors, who might not be shy about offering their opinions.
Describing assisted suicide as another “care option,” as if it were akin to antibiotic treatment, is simply misleading. It is state-sanctioned killing, albeit with the patient’s consent. As such, many doctors consider it morally wrong and refuse to provide or participate in it.
That brings us to freedom of conscience, something Clark says Alberta’s health-care workers, presumably including doctors, “already have” when it comes to MAID. Actually, they do not, at least not the kind of freedom of conscience that’s protected by law. On that score, Alberta MLA Dan Williams tabled Bill 207 intended to give them that right, which did not pass.
In Ontario, while not required to provide assisted suicide, doctors must make an “effective referral,” meaning referring the patient to a MAID-compliant doctor. In short, they must do indirectly what, for reasons of conscience, they will not do directly: facilitate assisted suicide. If they make such a referral, many Catholic and Christian doctors believe they are morally complicit in the patient’s death.
In Alberta, the situation is different: patients do not always rely directly on doctors to access assisted suicide. In effect, this frees Alberta practitioners from the dilemma facing their Ontario colleagues but offers no legal protection for those whose freedom of conscience might later be challenged on these or other grounds. There is still ample reason to enact an Alberta law protecting health-care professionals’ freedom of conscience.
Clark says it’s “not appropriate” to grant freedom of conscience to publicly funded institutions that might “impose” it on their employees. While she does not specifically name Catholic hospitals and facilities, it is mainly these that do not offer assisted suicide, a stance entirely consistent with their faith-based mandate: to respect human life at all stages, from conception to natural death.
Were Catholic health-care facilities forced to offer assisted suicide, as Clark implies they should be, one of two things would happen. Either they would willingly forfeit public funding and shut down rather than be complicit, or they would offer assisted suicide and cease being Catholic institutions. So far, governments have not forced Catholic hospitals to make that choice.
Many who enter Catholic hospitals and care homes do so by choice, knowing the institutions’ mandate. Many non-Catholics and non-Christians make the same choice, often for the life-affirming ethic that prevails in these facilities. When the going gets tough, as well it may, these patients know they will never be offered death as a so-called “treatment option.” That’s a relief for many Albertans.
James Mahony is a retired lawyer and journalist. A Roman Catholic and board member of the Ontario-based Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, he writes and speaks about end-of-life issues, including advance directives, euthanasia and assisted suicide.