The Current

Critics call bill aimed to protect health workers unwilling to offer assisted death 'one-sided'

"I don't think there's any need for the bill. I think its real purpose is virtue signaling."
The law requires that health institutions publish a report every six months revealing how many requests for doctor-assisted death they've received and how many they've approved. (Radio-Canada)

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Medical assisted-dying was a controversial idea before it became law less than 18 months ago, and it still is for some health-care professionals who refuse on religious or ethical grounds to be involved.

The Coalition for Healthcare and Conscience, an umbrella organization of religious groups, is lobbying for Bill 34 — a proposed Manitoba legislation drafted to help health-care workers with conscientious objections to helping end patients' lives.

While the Supreme Court has said health-care workers who don't want to participate in assisted-dying are protected, Manitoba's Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen, who introduced the bill says, what's missing is "protection from an employment perspective."

Winnipeg ER physician Ann McKenzie is a conscientious objector of medical assisted-dying.

"I don't want to be put in the position of having anything to do with medical assistance in dying ... that crosses a line for me," she said.

Dr. McKenzie supports this legislation as a way to protect herself in unforeseen circumstances that may come up later in her career.

"Our college who supports us now may in the future have different people elected and may make a different decision and follow the Ontario College," she told The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

She explained in Ontario, "their college has said that health-care professionals will be required to provide referrals for medical assistance in dying"  — a grave concern for McKenzie.

'We want to ensure that those many professionals who don't want to participate have that protection' Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said, referring to the Manitoba Bill 34 introduced by the government. (CBC)

In her 40 years as an ER physician, Dr. McKenzie has dealt with conversations about end of life and have asked patients if they want resuscitation.

"But there's a big, big difference between helping a person make that decision that they want comfort care or that they don't want resuscitation if it came to that point and actually helping them to plan an active end to their life, planning their death."

Dr. McKenzie said she's thought a lot about how she would approach a discussion if a patient asked her for information about medically-assisted death. The conversation, she said, would start with addressing their fears and concerns that brought them to this point.

"What can we do to alleviate those fears and to help with those concerns and relieve their pain?  I would want to show my compassion to them but I think I also would want to make it really clear ... that I am not able because of my own ethical concerns to actually make a formal referral," she explained.

But she added that she would let the patient know the health authority is able to offer all the information they need. But said she would not be comfortable passing on a phone number.

University of Manitoba ethics professor Arthur Schafer argues hospitals do not have a right to impose their beliefs about assisted deaths on health-care workers, patients or the general public. (CBC)

University of Manitoba's Arthur Schafer was part of a panel of experts that provided recommendations to provincial governments on assisted dying legislation. He sees Bill 34 as very one-sided.

"It ignores the great majority of physicians and it ignores the needs of patients," he told Chattopadhyay.

"I don't think there's any need for the bill. I think its real purpose is virtue signaling."

Schafer suggested the Manitoba government is portraying the province as "friendly to religion but they're not quite so friendly to a patient's right to access services."

"And we've seen in Manitoba both at the St. Boniface hospital and the Misericordia hospital how religious dogma can fundamentally undermine the health-care needs of patients."

He argued that balance is key, and it's missing in this legislation.

"The Supreme Court said we should respect the conscientious objections of physicians but at the same time, these have to be balanced against the patient's right of access," Schafer said.

"I'm going to offer a revolutionary proposal, a doctor's prime ethical obligation and health-care facilities is to put the best interests of the patient first."

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson and Winnipeg network producer Suzanne Dufresne.