A bill has been introduced in the Canadian Senate by Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth to legalize physician assisted suicide and euthanasia. Bill S-225’s definition of of “assist” is of particular interest. It means “to provide the person with the knowledge or means to commit suicide, or to perform an act with the intent to cause the person’s death.” Consistent with this, an “assisting physician” is one “who provides assistance” to a patient seeking euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.
This indicates that indirectly facilitating suicide even by providing information for that purpose is equivalent to more direct forms of assistance, like providing a lethal prescription. Further, it implies that both providing information to facilitate suicide and actually killing someone are of comparable legal or moral significance. Many physicians and health care workers who object to assisted suicide and euthanasia would agree, and, for that reason, would refuse to refer or otherwise help a patient find someone willing to kill him or assist him in committing suicide.
The point was overlooked during an interview of Senator Ruth by Evan Solomon on CBC Television’s Power and Politics (2 December, 2014). After discussing the contents of the bill in general terms and asking Senator Ruth about her reasons for introducing it, Solomon raised the issue of conscientious objection:
Evan Solomon: A doctor might be watching this, and say, you know, “Great piece of legislation. What do you do if, what will you do to me if I don’t want to do this?”
Senator Ruth: Nothing. No doctor is coerced to do this, no patient is coerced to do this. This is about choice. The choice of doctors who want to assist in it and their protection . . .
Solomon failed to ask the tough questions. Among them:
- If physicians will not be forced to kill patients, will they, nonetheless, be forced to help patients find someone who will?
- Why is it that the bill is about the choice and the protection of doctors who want to help to kill patients, and not about the choice and protection of those who refuse?
- When abortion was legalized, politicians and activists promised that no physician would be forced to provide abortions, but refused to include a protection of conscience provision in the law.1 Now the College of Physicians of Ontario is proposing a policy that would compel physicians to provide abortions or help patients obtain them.2 Dr. Marc Gabel, chair of the working group that produced the draft policy, warns that physicians who refuse to do this should get out of family practice.3 As written, the policy could be applied equally to euthanasia and assisted suicide. Why does Senator Ruth think that objecting physicians will not be coerced – if not sooner, then later?
1. Murphy, S. “Promises, promises. Canadian law reformers promise tolerance, freedom of conscience:What happens after the law is changed is another story.” Protection of Conscience Project
2. “Ontario physicians to be forced to do what they believe to be wrong: Draft policy demands that objectors provide or refer. Policy would apply to euthanasia, if legalized.” Protection of Conscience Project news release, 10 December, 2014
3. Swan, M. “Catholics doctors who reject abortion told to get out of family medicine.” The Catholic Register, 17 December, 2014. (Accessed 2014-12-19)