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Dr. Williard Johnston

Hospitals, hospices being bullied to euthanize 

Voices Feb. 7, 2018

Nancy Macey of the Delta Hospice Society addresses a Fraser Health Authority board meeting Wednesday, expressing her concerns about the implementation of assisted suicide in hospices. (Agnieszka Krawczynski photo)

Canadians who are sick and suicidal can now be put to death under various medicalized and government-approved protocols, following court and legislative victories by euthanasia activists. These activists are now turning their considerable talents to a coercive makeover of the palliative hospice movement by demanding that hospices founded on a promise to never deliberately hasten death should provide a death-hastening service.

Before they got their way in the Canadian Supreme Court, the public posture of euthanasia advocates was one of caution, reassurance and limitation of objectives. After their victory, partisans of the medical killing movement have become impatient with individuals or institutions who want no part in suicide and euthanasia. Activists recommend expanding access to include all the people who were strategically excluded from the plan that had been sold to the public: children, people with chronic nonfatal conditions, the physically disabled, the cognitively disabled, psychiatric patients.

Now, even changing the location of a patient requesting suicide — from a euthanasia-free hospital or hospice, to one that does offer it — is being protested as a cruel imposition. In doing so, the death-seeking person is set up as a victim, and the hospital or hospice is portrayed as a victimizer. Never mind that hospital wards routinely transport people in complete comfort to procedures like X-rays or scopes, or to another location to continue care.

There will be much harm done by forcing it into their midst.

The implications of this are dire. Many hospices serve patients who want nothing to do with assisted suicide, and there will be much harm done by forcing it into their midst. Every community in this country has the resources to provide a distinct euthanasia-free space. That distinct space and its staff could be specialized and uncoerced into death-hastening.

The unpleasant alternative was demonstrated by the recent "sneak attack" on Louis Brier Hospital, a Jewish retirement home in Vancouver. This was the work of euthanasia activist Ellen Wiebe, idolized by like-minded columnists for her aggressive death-providing practice. Rather than arrange a simple transfer — perhaps to the home of one of the suicidal father's daughters — the patient was killed by Dr. Wiebe against the firm policy of a facility with an understandable aversion to euthanasia.

As Louis Brier's director protested, "We have a lot of Holocaust survivors. To have a doctor sneak in and kill someone without telling anyone. They're going to feel like they're at risk when you learn someone was sneaking in and killing someone."

What Dr. Wiebe was doing by giving the finger to Louis Brier is a form of ethical bullying, masquerading as an altruistic claim that her client should come first and trump other people's rights about the kind of place they want to live in.

Wanting Dr. Wiebe to kill you is a tragedy, not an emergency. It is a personal preference, sadly now provided by the Canadian health-care system, but without any judicial or parliamentary authorization to force others to accept involuntary proximity to your actions. It is also, increasingly, about people who are not dying, except in Dr. Wiebe's elastic interpretation, but about those who have lost meaning and hope. What they get from the euthanasia provider amounts to a heartless endorsement of the hopelessness of their situation, cloaked in the language of autonomy.

Rather than look for a win-win compromise over this issue, the board of Fraser Health Authority, a large B.C. hospital system, has imposed euthanasia provision in all its palliative hospices. This edict, totally uncalled for by provincial or federal guidelines, caused the high-profile resignation of Palliative Care Medical Director Dr. Neil Hilliard.

Meanwhile, our governments are, in Dr. Hilliard's words, "guilty by neglect" of a "palliative care access gap," and your sick family member who seeks care, not death, may not find it "equitable or timely."

Forcing hospices to betray their no-kill founding principles will not close that gap, it will just torpedo the 40-year struggle to convince often-fearful patients that palliative hospices are not about hastening death.

Fraser Health and any other misled health bureaucracies across Canada should back down. Don't bully hospices as though there are no fair alternatives. Don't bully Catholic hospitals, founded on a reverence for life long before the public purse got involved.

Dr. Johnston is a Vancouver family physician. This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.