Physician-assisted death condemned by Alberta bishops, doctor, patient

In the strongly worded statement Thursday, Alberta's Catholic bishops condemned physician-assisted death and outlined what they want from the Alberta government.

'Willful act of killing oneself or another human being is morally wrong,' bishops say

Alberta's Catholic bishops condemned physician-assisted death in a statement issued Thursday. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

An emergency room doctor invited by the Catholic bishops of Alberta to speak out against physician-assisted death says the issue could create a dangerous conflict of interest for himself and many of his colleagues.

Dr. Matthew Meeuwissen, an emergency doctor at Westview Health Centre in Stony Plain, said he wants the right to not only refuse to help a patient die but also to refuse to refer that patient to another doctor who might have a different view on the issue.

Meeuwissen told reporters at a news conference organized Thursday by the Catholic bishops that the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeon is reviewing standards of practice regarding moral or religious beliefs that affect medical care.

According to the proposed standards, which have now been sent out for feedback, doctors who refuse a patient's request for help with a physician-assisted death must refer that patient to another doctor or other "information source."

"This puts us in a direct conflict of interest, between moral values, religious values … an oath that we have taken, and what the college is asking us to do," Meeuwiseen said.

"If I refer my patient to another physician for the sole purpose of enabling my patient's death, I am sending my patient to their death. And I am morally culpable for this action."

The college said if the new standards are adopted, physicians will be required to follow them, despite any objections they might have.

"If that standard is passed," said Kelly Eby, spokeswoman for the college, "physicians will not have the option of completely refusing. They will either have to refer or provide access to resources. And if someone then says, 'Well, my physician absolutely, flat-out refused, then that is the basis for a complaint."

'Suicide assistants'

Mark Pickup, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 30 years ago, also spoke out against physician-assisted death. He said he is thankful there were no "suicide assistants" around years ago when his condition was at its worst.

He said a person's decision to die affects not only that individual but the family and the community.

"We are not autonomous beings," he said. "We are not independent. Autonomy and community are diametrically opposed. You cannot have both. And I for one choose community over self."

In February 2015, the Supreme Court ruled the century-old law prohibiting physician-assisted death violated Canadians' charter rights. The court gave the federal government a year to come up with new legislation to deal with the issue. The government has since asked for an extension, and that legislation is now expected by June.

In the strongly worded statement, the bishops outlined their opposition.

"The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada makes legally permissible in some circumstances what is morally wrong in every circumstance: the taking of innocent human life," they said.

​Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said hospitals operated by Covenant Health, a Catholic organization that runs continuing-care facilities and hospitals across Alberta (including Edmonton's Grey Nuns and the Misericorida) will not offer physician-assisted death.

"The short answer, obviously, is no," he told reporters.

Church not out of touch, bishops say

Smith denied the bishops' statement demonstrates the church is out of touch with modern society. He said it instead it protects society from taking a dramatic and dangerous change of direction.

"This (Supreme Court) decision represents a societal revolution, because it takes the step of no longer walking with those who suffer and seeking to alleviate the suffering," he said. "It moves from that to a decision to eliminate the one who suffers."

In their statement, the Alberta bishops said safeguards in jurisdictions that already allow assisted-death do not work and imperil vulnerable people, such as the elderly or people with mental and physical disabilities.

The bishops called on the Alberta government to begin a consultation process open to anyone who wants to speak to the issue.

They also want the province to protect physicians' "conscience rights," saying doctors and hospitals should be allowed to opt out.

Physicians who objects to physician-assisted death "must not be coerced into referring a patient to another professional," they said.

A better solution for those who are suffering, according to the bishops, is excellent palliative care, which they say is "the ethical way to ensure that all Albertans can die in a manner that respects their true human dignity."

"We want to be clear that, from a Catholic perspective, the intentional, willful act of killing oneself or another human being is morally wrong."