In October, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the Carter case, where parties are challenging Criminal Code prohibitions on physician assisted suicide in the hopes of decriminalizing it. If they’re successful, it will impact more than just physicians.
In the Carter case, I acted for two groups of Protestant and Catholic physicians and a group of Catholic healthcare institutions. We argued that life is sacred and that assisted suicide should not be decriminalized, but we went on to argue more. The physicians argued that killing was not medicine and the Catholic healthcare institutions argued that providing dignity in death to the terminally ill and suffering was accomplished through palliative care and spiritual care, not through prematurely ending patient lives.
Beyond that, and most importantly, both groups pleaded with the Court to protect freedom of religion and freedom of conscience should it decide to decriminalize assisted suicide. In short, the physicians asked that should the Court legalize assisted suicide, that it rule that physicians who object to the practice on moral or religious grounds cannot be compelled to engage in the practice. Similarly, the Catholic healthcare institutions asked that they not be required to offer assisted suicide in their facilities on the grounds that doing so would violate Catholic teaching.
Since the case was heard, I have been involved in numerous discussions regarding the impact decriminalization will have on physicians’ conscience and religious rights and the rights of faith-based healthcare institutions. We have been developing policies and practices to protect these professionals and institutions. Many physicians and all faith-based healthcare institutions are obviously in a very vulnerable position here. In Ontario, the College of Physicians and Surgeon’s has released two draft policies which would require physicians who object to assisted suicide on moral or religious grounds to provide referrals to a physician who will assist a patient in ending their life.
Recently however, and as a result of a discussion with a fellow religious freedom lawyer, I realized that decriminalization will impact the religious freedom and conscience rights of many others. Of course, this includes all others in the health care field such as nurses, hospital staff and those working in the fields of psychology and counselling.
Lawyers who prepare wills and practice estate planning may be faced with scenarios where their clients ask them to prepare documents which conflict with their religious or moral beliefs. It is not uncommon for people preparing a power of attorney for personal care to include instructions regarding extreme or heroic life-sustaining measures. For example, many of these powers of attorney will say something along the lines of “I do not wish to have my life unduly prolonged by any course of treatment or any other medical procedure which offers no reasonable expectation of my recovery from life threatening physical or mental incapacity”.
This language is common and does not, to my knowledge, conflict with Christian teaching. There is a difference between accepting that a life has come to an end and taking active steps to end a life. With the decriminalization of assisted suicide however, lawyers may have clients request the inclusion of language which would ask that they be euthanized in certain particular circumstances. I don’t practice estate law, but my religious and moral convictions would preclude me from assisting a client in preparing such a power of attorney. If and when this type of scenario occurs, will the lawyer be permitted to opt-out from engaging in these kinds of activities? Will the lawyer be disciplined by his or her regulatory body? Only time will tell, but it is an issue Christian lawyers need to consider.
Another group of individuals who may be affected are chaplains, and particularly those operating under state programs. Many universities, all prisons and each branch of the military provide chaplaincy services. While some chaplains are specifically Catholic chaplains or Anglican chaplains, others play an interfaith role and provide spiritual counselling. In all cases however, the chaplain has his or her own religious and moral convictions. While chaplains endeavour to minister to people of different faiths, the chaplain remains entitled to his or her own religious beliefs. If assisted suicide is decriminalized, will chaplains be required to support, in their counselling and ministry, a person’s decision to end their own lives? Will chaplains be barred from, or reprimanded for counselling against suicide? What about a member of the military who has been seriously injured and sees no value in continuing his or her life? Will the chaplain be barred from ministering to that person in an effort to show them that they remain valuable in God’s eyes? Chaplains operating under government programs need to be thinking about this issue and considering how they will respond to the decriminalization of assisted suicide.
These are two groups of individuals that I see as being directly affected by the decriminalization of assisted suicide, but there are certainly others. Will medical insurers be allowed to refuse to pay for expensive medications if they instead offer to pay for assisted-suicide? This has already happened in Oregon, where assisted-suicide is legal. Will it be a reality in Canada? Could paramedics responding to an attempted suicide face assault charges if they intervene to save the person’s life? If suicide is a legal right, as was argue in the Carter case, how can the state interfere with someone’s attempt to end their life? Will campaigns directed at reducing or limiting instances of suicide now be barred for being discriminatory? If suicide is a legal right, how can we justify calling it an evil or a societal tragedy? Will teachers, priests, pastors and counsellors be reprimanded or disciplined if they counsel someone against ending their life? What about the various suicide hotlines? Will they be barred from counselling against suicide?
I believe that decriminalizing assisted suicide is not supported in law, is bad for society and will result in the devaluing of human life. Some people disagree with me, but have they and has the Supreme Court of Canada really considered all of the implications of going down that road? It’s a Pandora’s Box that will impact our country and society in ways we may even have imagined.