Many Ontario doctors caught in euthanasia dilemma

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, June 2, 2017)

He’s a friend. A doctor. His name is Stuart. I stood at the front door of his home, my son beside me.

Stuart is the keeper of the children’s bicycles while we’re abroad. We swung by to make arrangements to get them. That’s all it was, an ordinary May evening. But the world was somehow different. Its axis had shifted. At least for Stuart.

He’d just returned from Queen’s Park, he informed me, with other doctors lobbying for a private member’s bill, that of MPP Jeff Yurek, from Elgin-London-Middlesex. Yurek’s bill supported doctor’s freedom of conscience in the matter of medically assisted death.

Stuart is a Hamilton surgeon. Ear, nose and throat. During his career he’s seen his share of cancer. He’s saved his share of lives, even as he’s seen his share of suffering and death. He’s a man of good faith. It shines through him naturally and it’s part of the professionalism for which he’s respected by peers, including overseas, in Egypt, where he gives of his little extra time.

Stuart, like most doctors worldwide, is more concerned about saving lives than taking lives. It’s the essence of the age-old Hippocratic oath, what doctors for centuries have signed-up for. Saving lives is in his blood. Besides his family, nothing is more important to Stuart. Stand at his door and he’ll tell you this.

Stuart’s day, humanly speaking, was a failure. Ontario’s Liberals chose to defeat Yurek’s bill and not protect doctors like Stuart from a new policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.

If you want to kill yourself, then Ontario’s doctors — Stuart and about 29,000 others — must help you, directly or indirectly, through at least formal referral; even if this violates their deepest moral convictions. Doctors not complying can now face discipline, maybe even job loss, according to the Ontario college policies.

To give perspective, of the planet’s 195 nations, you can count on your two hands the number where citizens can legally kill themselves. But even these few jurisdictions have the common decency to protect those doctors, those men and women who’ll look you cleanly in the eye, like Stuart did to me, and say, “I won’t have anything to do with it.”

They’re protected in these jurisdictions, including other Canadian provinces. Just not in Ontario.

If you want to kill yourself, in, say, Alberta, like in, say, Holland or Belgium or Luxemburg, you simply refer yourself to a euthanasia service, or to a willing doctor who then formally refers you. The Dr. Stuarts of the world aren’t involved because it makes no sense to involve them.

Unless you want to target them. Or unless you’re a professional medical college, or a provincial government, with a desire for control that’s greater than the libertarian values you profess.

Ironically, the doctors who are often awarded by professional peers, and recognized by broader society, for their exceptional humanitarian work are now the very doctors of conscience being bullied into this choice that is not a choice, into this rather horrible groupthink, into taking part, even implicitly, in an act that, until recently, was a criminal offence.

This is the view from Stuart’s front door. He’s not alone.

The Ontario Medical Association supports conscious rights. So does Concerned Ontario Doctors, a coalition representing 20,000 doctors. So did a clear majority of public presentations to a legislative subcommittee on this matter. So have thousands of constituent letters to MPPs. So have faith organizations across religious spectrums.

They all see the good sense to allow for freedom of conscience alongside new euthanasia services. It’s neither complicated nor onerous. Rural Ontarians in low-service areas can easily self-refer through centralized assisted-death services.

Protecting doctors who are faithfully committed to life would seem especially reasonable in a part of the world that prides itself for its tolerance and for its common freedoms. Or are these vaulted values not for everyone?

No, Ontario’s good doctors are now left blowing in the wind. The result, of course, is that tomorrow’s good doctors may readily choose other work. We’ll all be poorer for that. And more vulnerable.

Consider the next likely stop with all this, the courts, in light of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That will drag for years. Remarkably sad. And remarkably avoidable.

5 Comments

  1. Pat Hines June 20, 2017 at 10:42 am

    Well said, Thom. I am grieving for the Stuarts of our province, as well as for the generation which will have to decide whether it will enter this profession or not. Patty Hines

  2. rose zacharias meeder June 20, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    well said, Thom. I also attended Queen’s Park that day and am following this issue closely. Thanks for the support.

    Rose Zacharias MD CCFP

  3. Matthew June 21, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    Dear Thom, thanks for this. It is a very disconcerting time to be a doctor in Ontario. Many of the very best doctors I know went into medicine and go the extra mile for their patients because they believe every life is precious and of infinite worth. They are great doctors and devoted to their patients’ welfare because of their moral convictions. To force them to violate their consciences is grossly unfair and will not result in better patient care. To think that having a system where doctors are expected to partake in things that they sincerely believe are harmful and unethical somehow serves the public interest is nonsensical. Thanks for drawing attention to this very important issue. I hope that Stuart and his colleagues do not lose hope and that they persist in challenging the CPSO’s policy that demands doctors effectively refer for (and thus become complicit in) procedures they believe are unethical.

  4. Steve Males July 22, 2017 at 10:15 am

    How far would these deniers of conscientious objection go to force compliance? Recently I heard a defender of the CPSO say on a radio talk show that anyone opposed to their policy should be forced out of the profession, and that anyone opposed to active involvement in euthanasia should be denied admittance to medical school. Given the simple, tried-and-tested alternatives to such Orwellian extremes, one thing becomes clear: this is not about the rights of patients, but only about imposing a particular ideology to the exclusion of all others, and this in our much-touted “inclusive society.”

  5. Thomas Froese July 22, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Indeed, Steve. Thanks for this. Pluralism only works when different worldviews are given equal footing and space, and, for sure, it is ironic in a so-called inclusive society, to shut down thoughtful voices who serve the public in good faith.

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