The Hidden Professions of Conscientious Objection

Bob Parke*

Federal legislation permitting the killing of people who meet the criteria for Medical assistance in dying (MAiD) has challenged most healthcare professionals to carefully consider where they morally stand on causing someone’s death. While many healthcare providers may feel it is against their values to participate in euthanasia, we have all been asked or will be asked at some point about euthanasia by a patient or their family. . . .  In general, frontline conscientious objectors have been respected and accommodated. But, what about those behind the scenes? . . .[Full text]

Dignitarian medical ethics

Linda Barclay


Philosophers and bioethicists are typically sceptical about invocations of dignity in ethical debates. Many believe that dignity is essentially devoid of meaning: either a mere rhetorical gesture used in the absence of good argument or a faddish term for existing values like autonomy and respect. On the other hand, the patient experience of dignity is a substantial area of research in healthcare fields like nursing and palliative care. In this paper, it is argued that philosophers have much to learn from the concrete patient experiences described in healthcare literature. Dignity is conferred on people when they are treated as having equal status, something the sick and frail are often denied in healthcare settings. The importance of equal status as a unique value has been forcefully argued and widely recognised in political philosophy in the last 15 years. This paper brings medical ethics up to date with philosophical discussion about the value of equal status by developing an equal status conception of dignity.

Barclay L. Dignitarian medical ethics. Journal of Medical Ethics Published Online First: 13 October 2017. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2017-104467

Health professionals’ pledge rejects any form of participation in or condoning torture

Sean Murphy*

Physicians for Human Rights is sponsoring a Health Professionals’ Pledge Against Torture that includes statements that signatories will never “participate or condone” torture and support colleagues who “resist orders to torture or inflict harm.”  It also commits signatories to insist that their professional associations support those facing pressure “to participate or condone torture and ill-treatment.”

What is noteworthy is that the pledge is not limited to simply refusing to torture someone, but is a pledge against participation (which would include forms of facilitation like referral) and against condoning the practice.

Replace “torture” with commonly morally contested procedures and it becomes obvious that the ethical position taken by Physicians for Human Rights vis-à-vis torture is identical to the position of many health care professionals who object to practices like euthanasia or abortion for reasons of conscience.

Conscientious objection: Can a hospital refuse to provide treatment?

Baylor College of Medicine

Claire Horner

Canada recently legalized medical assistance in dying (MAiD), which allows patients to receive a lethal drug that they can self-administer, or be administered a lethal drug by an authorized clinician with consent of the patient. As provinces and territories work to create and clarify legal guidelines for providing MAiD, many Catholic hospitals have refused to offer it, citing opposition to physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in Catholic moral teaching.

This controversy surrounding institutional conscience-based refusals raises an important question: Should a health care institution have the right to refuse to provide a particular treatment for conscience-based reasons? . . . [Full text]

Is Costa Rica at the Epicenter of a Global Black Market in Human Organs?

If the events are in fact true, there were many people turning a blind eye and/or being paid off to not say anything about what was happening in these medical centers for years.

The Costa Rica Star

Wendy Anders

With criminal proceedings underway on a human organ trafficking case involving the trial of four Costa Rican doctors and their alleged accomplices, many interesting details are coming to light.

Intersecting forces of greed, corruption and international black markets are being identified and dissected as evidence is presented in this first of a kind trial in Costa Rica. More details will be forthcoming as prosecutors weigh testimony by numerous individuals over the next two months. . .[Full text]


Physicians support assisted death for mature minors, but not mental illness


Lauren Vogel

Doctors attending a session on medical aid in dying at the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) General Council supported the use of advance directives and allowing mature minors to access assisted death. However, they split on opening up the service to otherwise healthy people with mental illness.

In a poll, 83% said they would support the use of advance directives to request medical aid in dying in cases where a person was otherwise unable to give consent. Some 69% would support opening the service to “mature minors,” including cases in which a guardian might request assisted death for a terminally ill infant, for example. However, after roundtable discussions, less than half (46%) of doctors polled said they would support assisted death on the basis of mental illness alone. . .  [Full text]


CMA poll finds rising support for medically assisted death

The Globe and Mail

André Picard

Canada’s doctors, who have never been staunch supporters of medically assisted death, now seem to be open to a liberalization of the law.

A straw poll conducted on Wednesday at the Canadian Medical Association annual meeting found that 83 per cent of delegates supported allowing “advance directives” – meaning, for example, that people with dementia could, while they are still competent, decide they want an assisted death at a later time.

The informal poll of the 600 delegates also found that 67 per cent backed the idea of “mature minors” being allowed to access assisted death. (A mature minor is someone under 18 who is deemed mature enough to make decisions about their own medical treatment.)

Physicians, however, were far less enthusiastic about allowing assisted death for patients whose sole problem is mental illness: Only 51 per cent backed that idea.

Similar CMA straw polls showed that, in 2013, only 34 per cent of doctors supported assisted dying legislation; that rose to 45 per cent in 2014. . . [Full text]


There is no defence for ‘Conscientious objection’ in reproductive health care


A widespread assumption has taken hold in the field of medicine that we must allow health care professionals the right to refuse treatment under the guise of ‘conscientious objection’ (CO), in particular for women seeking abortions. At the same time, it is widely recognized that the refusal to treat creates harm and barriers for patients receiving reproductive health care. In response, many recommendations have been put forward as solutions to limit those harms. Further, some researchers make a distinction between true CO and ‘obstructionist CO’, based on the motivations or actions of various objectors. This paper argues that ‘CO’ in reproductive health care should not be considered a right, but an unethical refusal to treat. Supporters of CO have no real defence of their stance, other than the mistaken assumption that CO in reproductive health care is the same as CO in the military, when the two have nothing in common (for example, objecting doctors are rarely disciplined, while the patient pays the price). Refusals to treat are based on non-verifiable personal beliefs, usually religious beliefs, but introducing religion into medicine undermines best practices that depend on scientific evidence and medical ethics. CO therefore represents an abandonment of professional obligations to patients. Countries should strive to reduce the number of objectors in reproductive health care as much as possible until CO can feasibly be prohibited. Several Scandinavian countries already have a successful ban on CO.

Fiala C, Arthur JH. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2017 Jul 23. pii: S0301-2115(17)30357-3. doi: 10.1016/j.ejogrb.2017.07.023. [Epub ahead of print]


Ontario Today: Should doctors be forced to refer?

CBC Radio

Outline of the programme

00:00 Introduction

03:00  Dr. Sephora Tang, psychiatrist (objecting physician).  Discussion points include potential problem of access to euthanasia/assisted suicide faced by frail and isolated patients, those in rural areas or  “negative elements” in families, central referral service alternative, issue of complicity, physician-patient relationship.

12:16  Caller Dr. Terry, primary care (objecting physician). Discussion points include erosion of medical ethics, erosion of trust in physician-patient relationship, relationship between law and ethics, distinction in skill sets needed for euthanasia/assisted suicide vs. abortion.

19:25  Interviewer outlines points in position of the Canadian Medical Association

20:19  Caller Vivi. Favours compulsory referral because access to euthanasia/assisted suicide should be considered from patient perspective, not doctor’s.

22:32  Dr. Sephora Tang responds to points made by caller.

24:14  Interviewer outlines policy on effective referral of College of Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario [There are two relevant documents: POHR and MAID; Administrator]

24:34  Caller Dr. Ramona Coelho (objecting physician). Explains why she will not make effective referral.

25:42  Caller Dr. David Roussell, President, College of Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO).  Interviewer puts to him opposition to effective referral by the Canadian Medical Association, more liberal policies in other provinces.  Dr. Roussell discusses College policy requiring effective referral.  Asserts that the College is primarily concerned with access to euthanasia/assisted suicide etc. by patients who might have difficulty doing do if their physician does not assist.  Notes that both Nova Scotia and Quebec have similar requirements, so Ontario is not alone.  Notes that referral does not always result in procedure being obtained.  Characterizes objections to effective referral as oversensitive.  Acknowledges that loss of licence to practice is one possible outcome of complaint against a physician for refusing to refer.

35:12  Caller Dr. Christine (objecting physician).  Emphasizes central care coordinating system and self-referral by patients would be more efficient and avoid conflicts of conscience.

37:20  Caller Dr. Roussell agrees that central coordination system and self-referral is promising, but asserts that this can “fall apart” in some cases.

38:25 Caller David.  Opposed to compulsory referral.  Believes it is safer to ensure diversity of views in society, especially in life and death matters, by protecting freedom of conscience.

41:30  Interviewer asks Dr. Roussell to respond to concerns about freedom of conscience.

42:00  Caller Dr. Roussell notes “private beliefs, religious or otherwise, are not the purview, shouldn’t be the purview of the College or the government . . . What we’re talking about here is from the public’s point of view. There’s a legally available service to, in most people’s minds, alleviate suffering, which is what medicine is supposed to be about.  And the battle’s been fought, the war’s been won, the law has been passed.  Why are we throwing up obstacles to a legally accessible service?  Especially throwing up obstacles at the last moment to people who are in some sense suffering.”

43:04 Caller Joel (medical student).  Supports compulsory referral.  “Doctors in Canada should not be practising medicine in Canada if they feel that their moral code supersedes what is law.”  He adds, “It is great for doctors to unite and object on some things” and refers to the Alberta system (which has proved acceptable to objecting physicians).  He believes that effective referral for euthanasia or assisted suicide does not make a physician a “conduit of death,” but means that the patient can access a specialist with appropriate training.  He characterizes acceptance of conscientious objection as a “slippery slope.”

44:45  Caller Erica.  Supports compulsory referral.  Her mother (whom she identified as a Christian) was suffering from multiple sclerosis.  She was joyful when euthanasia was legalized [Criminal Code amendments given Royal Assent in June, 2016; Administrator].  She was not euthanized/assisted with suicide until the end of December, 2016 because her physician (whom Erica also identified as a Christian) refused, and refused to refer her. Erica stated that this “absolutely shattered her.  It took her days to pick herself up and decide she was going to keep trying to find somebody.” Asserts that denying such people access to a medical procedure is unfair.

46:31  Interviewer notes that less than 75 physicians in Ontario are actually providing euthanasia/assisted suicide. Erica explains that a doctor was found after a CBC interview made her situation public.

47:28  Dr. Sephora Tang responds.  Notes that patients want access, and she does not wish to impede.  The system set up by the government made it impossible for patients to access euthanasia/assisted suicide on their own. If society wants people to have access, there are alternative ways to ensure access that should be considered.

48:07  Interviewer asks about patients being fearful of the “judgement” of their physicians.

48:27  Dr. Sephora Tang emphasizes importance of trust in physician-patient relationship.   It is better for the patient to know where she stands on some issues, so there “no guessing around that.”  It is possible to agree to disagree.

49:16  Dr. Chantal (euthanasia/assisted suicide provider).  Supports compulsory referral, because “patients need access.”  Abortion clinics are not an appropriate comparison.  Referral must include all relevant medical information.  “No medical information is necessary for a physician to do an abortion,” but is needed prior to performing euthanasia/assisted suicide.  To expect patients to go to hospitals and doctors to gather all of the relevant medical information is “completely unreasonable.”  Patients would be “significantly compromised” if objecting physicians refused to provide the relevant information.

Postscript from Dr. Christine (Reproduced with permission)

Just because a physician may conscientiously object to formal participation by the administrative/legal/ethical agreement implied by a documentation-based referral (re: linking billing numbers between 2 practitioners for review +/- enactment of a desired procedure),this does NOT mean that an objecting physician would ever dare to obstruct the subsequently requested movement of health file information (which is first and foremost a property that emanates from the patient!) to the clinician to whom the patient wishes to receive lethal injections from. 

Furthermore:  If a patient seeks a care pathway that may end in MAiD, through a care coordination service in the ideal case, then there are administrative health professionals in all the offices who can and do link with each other to physically get the records moving. 

(Again, a physician is not the one pulling the files in a Norman Rockwell/1950’s-style office; we now have digital spigots to move information, and physicians are not required to unlock the content in our current collaborative environment of ConnectingOntario/PRO/OLIS).

 My original point in the call is that forcing a physician to fill out referrals (and limiting the power/responsibility to do this, to physicians) is ironically creating (rather than removing) a barrier to care. 

 (Incidentally – and not all people know this – it is also quite typical and not an exception for most referrals to come with inadequate background case information, even in non-controversial indications; doctors know how to probe for what’s missing [and often have to ask for information in several iterations and from multiple parties], and gaps from healthcare fragmentation are not so much a product of malfeasance as simply laziness…)


La conscience et les médecins canadiens


Collectif des médecins contre l’euthanasie

Depuis la légalisation de l’euthanasie, il y a un an, nous voyons qu’il y a une forte pression politique pour normaliser sa pratique au Canada. Pourtant, beaucoup de médecins s’opposent toujours à cette pratique. Nombre d’entre eux désireraient qu’elle soit rigoureusement restreinte. Et plusieurs, pour des raisons de conscience, personnelle ou professionnelle, refusent catégoriquement d’y collaborer.

Malheureusement, nos politicien(ne)s ne nous permettent aucun doute quant à leur intention d’ignorer le jugement des médecins dissidents, et d’étouffer leur opposition. Or, les pires de ces politiciens semblent se trouver parmi les rangs de notre propre profession.

Considérons, à titre d’exemple, la nouvelle politique (2015), du College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, au sujet du « Droit de Conscience » de ses membres.

Cette politique est identifiée comme étant une simple mis à jour révisée, mais en réalité elle s’apparent peu à la version précédente (2008).

Et la raison en est évidente : sans jamais parler franchement de l’euthanasie, du suicide assisté, ou même de l’aide médicale à mourir, cette nouvelle politique fut, dès le départ, façonnée pour faciliter une redéfinition radicale, à la manière Orwellienne, de « l’euthanasie », de l’homicide en soin médical. Cela oblige, effectivement, tous les médecins ontariens à participer au programme d’euthanasie.

De manière pratique :

« Dans le cas où des médecins ne voudraient pas fournir certains soins pour des raisons de conscience ou de religion, ces derniers sont tenus de référer le patient à un autre fournisseur de soins. »

Bien-sûr, on voit, ici, l’obstacle principal à la collaboration de nombreux docteurs qui considèrent le fait d’orienter leurs patients vers d’autres agences de mort  comme étant aussi horrible que de pratiquer eux-mêmes l’acte d’euthanasier.

Cependant, le problème éthique ne s’arrête pas à  l’obligation de référer le patient à d’autres ressources. Il y a également le « devoir d’informer » :

« Les médecins doivent fournir de l’information à propos de toutes les options cliniques qui peuvent être disponibles ou appropriés pour répondre aux besoins cliniques du patient ou à ses préoccupations ».

« Les médecins ne doivent pas retenir de l’information au sujet d’une procédure ou d’un traitement pour des raisons de conflit avec leur conscience ou leur croyance religieuse ».

Prenez bien note des italiques ajoutés : apparemment, le médecin se trouverait dans l’obligation d’informer ses patients de toutes les options légalement disponibles, même si elles s’avèrent inappropriées ! Et cette obligation aurait préséance sur toute conviction morale ou professionnelle du médecin.

L’aspect impératif de ce “devoir d’informer” dépasse même celui du « devoir de référer”. Dans chaque cas où les critères associés à l’euthanasie seraient satisfaits, il y aurait obligation de soumettre le patient aux terribles stress et doutes soulevés par le constat, ainsi imposé, qu’il fait partie du groupe select de personnes pour lesquelles l’euthanasie est devenue praticable. Aucune objection de jugement, aucune objection de conscience, ne pourrait excuser le médecin du devoir de livrer ce message effroyable, avec la suggestion implicite qu’il véhicule.

En Ontario, donc, par proclamation du CPSO, le rôle du médecin serait réduit à celui d’une machine distributrice automatique qui afficherait les options d’euthanasie mandatés par l’état, et qui offrirait passivement de boutons correspondants que le patient puisse actionner.

Évidemment, la force et l’étendu d’un telle politique sont extraordinaires. Le jugement professionnel est la fondation de la pratique médicale. Le « Droit de Conscience » est à la base de tout notre système de démocratie séculaire. Tous les deux sont écartés. Nous devons réellement nous trouver devant une situation de crise colossale pour justifier de telles mesures draconiennes !

Mais voilà. Il n’existe aucune urgence semblable.

Rappelons-nous que le programme original d’euthanasie nous fut vendu comme la réponse impérative au sort de ce patient hypothétique, au seuil de la mort et affligé de souffrances, à la fois, insoutenables et intraitables. Rappelons aussi, comment ce cas extrême, que dis-je, ce cas virtuellement mythique, fut exploité pour nous acheminer doucement vers tous ces morts, sans rapport, que nous devons craindre actuellement. Encore, de nouveau, une stratégie similaire se poursuit. Cette fois, le besoin absolu, pour tous les médecins, de faire la promotion de l’euthanasie (en tout temps et auprès de leurs patients les plus vulnérables), nous est présenté comme le prix nécessaire pour pallier à la possibilité hypothétique qu’un seul patient puisse être frustré dans son désir de mourir.

On nous demande de croire que n’importe quel fardeau réel, qu’il soit financier, professionnel ou moral, serait justifié quand il est question de faciliter une seule mort volontaire et idéalisée. Ce serait un genre d’inversion grotesque de la proposition voulant que « aucun prix n’est trop élevé, pourvu qu’un seul enfant puisse vivre… », qui devient dans la discussion actuelle : « pourvu qu’une seule personne puisse mourir… »

D’autres juridictions, pas moins respectables que l’Ontario, ont épousé des principes tout à fait opposés. Et il n’existe aucune évidence que quiconque aurait souffert, ou souffrira ultérieurement.

Le Manitoba élabore actuellement une loi qui reconnaitrait explicitement le droit de non-participation et de non-orientation des patients vers l’euthanasie pour les médecins, ainsi que pour les autres professionnels de la santé. Deux des principaux hôpitaux de Winnipeg ont signalé leur refus de permettre l’euthanasie dans leur établissement.

Dans l’État de Vermont, une bataille judiciaire autour des mêmes principes s’est soldée, dernièrement, par une victoire complète des droits des médecins.

Et en Ontario, un groupe de médecins, dévoués et courageux, a récemment engagé une action à ce sujet contre le CPSO; les arguments furent écoutés Juin 13-15, 2017.

Ce jugement sera rendu plus tard dans l’année. Nous espérons que la cour tranchera, cette fois, du bon côté !

Mais nonobstant la nature de ce jugement, le temps qu’il faudra, la dépense; nonobstant les efforts législatifs qui peuvent être éventuellement exigés : Cette politique autoritaire du College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario n’est ni nécessaire, ni justifiée. Elle n’est pas désirable. Elle n’est même pas raisonnablement défendable. Elle est extrême. Elle est irrationnelle. Surtout, elle serait profondément préjudiciable pour les médecins,  leurs patients, et tout le système médical. Elle représente une injustice et une honte qui ne peuvent être acceptées.