British Columbia Pressuring Religious Health Care Provider to Provide Euthanasia… Again



July 11, 2023
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In recent weeks, the story of one terminal cancer patient who had to be transferred out of Providence Health so that she could be euthanized was reported on by various news outlets. These stories prompted Health Minister Adrian Dix to promise that he would talk to Providence Health and pressure them to provide euthanasia on site.

Providence Health, “inspired by the healing ministry of Jesus Christ… is a Catholic health care community dedicated to meeting the physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs of those served through compassionate care, teaching and research,” according to its mission statement. For the past decades, denominational health care providers have operated through a master agreement between the province and the denominational health care facilities association. This agreement allows religious health care providers to partner with the provincial government but still retain “the right to determine in the context of their respective values and traditions the mission and values of the owner so as to preserve the spiritual nature of the facility.”

In other words, this agreement allowed religious health care providers like Providence Health to opt out of providing things they thought were immoral, such as abortion, contraception, or euthanasia.

But now the provincial government is under pressure to scrap or renegotiate this agreement. This would lead to the province either defunding Providence Health and possibly taking over their facilities (as happened already with Delta Hospice) or forcing Providence Health to provide euthanasia against their ethical, conscientious, and religious convictions. Unlike Delta Hospice, Providence Health is a big player in health care in Vancouver. It operates ten different institutions in Vancouver and is in the midst of building a brand new, 548-bed St. Paul’s Hospital at a cost of $2.1 billion in partnership with the provincial government.

In his promise to pressure Providence Health into providing euthanasia, Minister Dix ignores two key pieces of history and an important legal reality.

First of all, the government is relatively new to delivering health care. Until the late twentieth century, churches and civil society shouldered the bulk of the duty to care for the sick and dying. In many cases, this health care came at great personal cost. Governments were absent.

One ancient example is the Justinian Plague, during the dying days of the Roman Empire, when most citizens in Rome hid indoors to avoid catching the plague, leaving the sick and dying to fend for themselves. The exception was the Christians, who took it upon themselves to care for those infected by the plague to either help them recover or to comfort them during their last days. The Roman Emperor Julian, although an opponent to the Christian faith, nevertheless marvelled that they “care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

A more recent example is Mother Theresa, a devout Catholic from Macedonia who moved to India to minister to the sick and needy. Her compassion and mission to live out her faith in service to the sick have inspired countless others.

When it comes to health care, the primary role of governments has been to ensure that every person has the financial means to obtain health care, not to dictate how the sick are cared for. The main objective of Canadian health care policy, set out by the Canada Health Act, “is to protect, promote and restore the physical and mental well-being of residents of Canada and to facilitate reasonable access to health services without financial or other barriers.” It accomplishes this objective by making the government the single payer for all medically necessary services. Governments should amplify rather than supplant religiously motivated efforts to care for the sick.

This was precisely why BC’s Denominational Health Care Facilities Association agreement was struck in 1995. Its purpose was to further the partnership between the provincial government (as the single payer for health care) and religious organizations (as one of many providers of health care) to care for the sick and dying. Scrapping the agreement or forcing religious institutions to violate their moral principles is equivalent to saying to the oldest player in health care, “Thank you for your service; now beat it.”

Which brings us to the second lesson from history. For thousands of years, health care practitioners have followed the Hippocratic oath. That oath includes the promise to use “regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgment, and I will do no harm or injustice to them. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course.” Patients could be confident that a physician was seeking to preserve their life and restore their health. Euthanasia was anathema.

This ethical standard was reflected in the Canadian Criminal Code, which outlawed euthanasia, assisted suicide, as well as counselling or encouraging someone to end their life. Euthanasia and assisted suicide were serious crimes.

Unfortunately, that changed when the Supreme Court and Parliament jointly legalized what they euphemistically called Medical Assistance in Dying. Over two thousand years of devotion to preserving the health of patients and doing no harm was thrown out the window.

Yes, euthanasia is now legal in Canada. That does not mean that every health care professional or institution, even if partially funded by the government, is obligated to provide euthanasia. Legal does not mean obligatory. There may be very good reasons why we don’t allow care aids to administer euthanasia and why not every small-town hospital in BC provides open heart surgery. By way of analogy, the legalization of marijuana does not mean that governments are obligated to provide everyone with the substance or force other institutions to provide it.

It is absurd that any institution should be criminally investigated, as Providence Health was, for not doing something that was a serious crime only 7 years ago, namely killing someone at her request.

Providence Health also has the constitution on its side. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of conscience and religion (which protects individual health care practitioners from being forced to provide euthanasia against their religious or conscientious convictions), but also freedom of association. Taken together, these freedoms protect a religious health care institution’s choice to refuse to engage in a practice for religious and moral reasons.

When Dr. George Carson, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Saskatchewan quoted in an article by Daphne Bramham, says that “conscientious objection for a building — particularly one supported by taxpayers — makes no sense,” he fundamentally mistakes what an association is. Providence Health isn’t a building. Providence Health is a collection of health care professionals and support staff who have freely associated together to serve a common cause: “inspired by the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, Providence Health Care is a Catholic health care community dedicated to meeting the physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs of those served through compassionate care, teaching and research.”

Providence Health operates 20 of 68 palliative care beds in the Coast Health region and is in the middle of constructing, in partnership with the provincial government, a new and expanded St. Paul’s Hospital. In a province that is in dire need of more palliative care beds (and more health care capacity in general), the Premier and the Health Minister shouldn’t be picking ideological battles with religious health care providers. Instead, to better serve its citizens, the government should be asking: how can we form more, new, and better partnerships with faith-based institutions to provide the services that British Columbians need?

So… could you spare five minutes of your time to send your MLA and Minister Dix a note, voicing your support for Providence Health’s right to operate according to their religious convictions?

British Columbia, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Conscience, Freedom of Religion Email Us 

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