2 more resignations follow St. Boniface Hospital decision on assisted death

Two more resignation letters have been submitted after a controversial revote banned medically assisted dying at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg.

‘It would have been hypocritical for me to continue sitting' on St. Boniface subcommitte, says Dr. Ken Hahlweg

More resignation letters have been submitted following a controversial vote banning assisted death at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg. (Getty Images/Blend Images)

Two more resignation letters have been submitted after a controversial revote banned medically assisted dying at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital.

On May 29, the St. Boniface Hospital board of directors, which provides governance for the hospital, narrowly approved a new policy that would allow medical assistance in dying, or MAID, at the faith-based hospital under "rare circumstances."

The Catholic Health Corp. of Manitoba, which owns St. Boniface Hospital's facilities and appoints its board, held a special board meeting the next day and added 10 new members, all of whom were part of the corporation, to the hospital's board of directors, and then asked for a revote on June 12.

That vote banned medically assisted death at the hospital.

This week, Linda Hughes, a retired nurse who was on the board, offered her resignation, as did Dr. Ken Hahlweg, who was on a subcommittee dedicated to patient care.

"It was a difficult decision but I felt certainly compelled to do so with my colleagues resigning," Hahlweg said.

Then-board chairman Murray Kilfoyle submitted his resignation after learning of Catholic Health's plan to alter the board.

Dr. Marcus Blouw, a former member of the St. Boniface board and the outgoing president of the St. Boniface Hospital medical staff, was also critical of the revote.

"A patient or their family is going to have to challenge faith-based institutions and challenge this status quo. I don't think that a jury of Canadians would support the rights of an institution over the rights of a dying patient," Blouw told CBC News earlier this week.

"To be more brazen about it, I think that ultimately this will be challenged in court as discrimination on the basis of religion."

'It was undermining compassionate care'

In his role on the committee, Hahlweg said he was tasked with having some oversight in terms of the care that is provided within the hospital, and ensuring it was patient-centred. He said the committee did good work and he enjoyed that it was apolitical.

"I just felt that the work that we were doing on behalf of the board was now being undermined by the board's decision to reverse the decision on providing medical assistance in death within the hospital," he said.

"It was undermining compassionate care and just felt that it would have been hypocritical for me to continue sitting on the patient-care committee."

Last year, the federal government amended the Criminal Code with Bill C-14 to allow doctors and nurse practitioners to help patients with "grievous and irremediable" illnesses to die. Manitoba introduced its own policy on medically assisted dying that same month, which includes a special team to assess cases and provide medically assisted death.

St. Boniface Hospital's new policy, which was brought in with the June 12 vote, allows the team to assess patients on site. (Google Street View)
Under its old rules, patients at St. Boniface Hospital hoping to access medical assistance in dying had to be transferred off-site for assessment. The hospital's new policy, which was brought in with the June 12 vote, allows the team to assess patients on-site.

But the faith-based hospital still will not allow medically assisted deaths on site.

'It really engenders a lot of cynicism'

"We live in a multi-faith society and you have direction given by a board that goes against the decisions that are made by larger institutions in our country," Hahlweg said.

"These are things that our society decided are a part of normal care needs throughout a person's life and should be offered to a patient. And as a public institution that should be available wherever a person goes."

He said that the message sent by the board, with its newly appointed members, has left a lot of hospital staff concerned.

"For that dramatic reversal to occur, and in the manner it did happen, it really engenders a lot of cynicism," he said.

Hahlweg said it has left him wondering what the role of a faith-based hospital that receives public funding should be.

"I think our society does need to be asking the question, 'What is the role? Is there a role? Should there be a role for faith-based institutions in our country?'"

In an email to CBC about the resignations, Catholic Health Corp. CEO Daniel Lussier said, "We have thanked them both for their years of dedicated community service."