Canadian court tells doctors they must refer for euthanasia

Will they be hounded out of their profession?

Mercatornet

Michael Cook

For years bioethicists of a utilitarian cast have argued that conscientious objection has no place in medicine. Now Canadian courts are beginning to put their stamp of approval on the extinction of doctors’ right to refuse to kill their patients.

The Superior Court of Justice Division Court of Ontario ruled this week that if doctors are unwilling to perform legal actions, they should find another job.

A group of five doctors and three professional organizations were contesting a policy issued by Ontario’s medical regulator, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), arguing it infringed their right to freedom of religion and conscience under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, Justice Herman J. Wilton-Siegel wrote on behalf of a three-member panel:

“the applicants do not have a common law right or a property right to practise medicine, much less a constitutionally protected right.

“Those who enjoy the benefits of a licence to practise a regulated profession must expect to be subject to regulatory requirements that focus on the public interest, rather than the interests of the professionals themselves.”

At issue is the policy of “effective referral”. A doctor who objects to participating in euthanasia cannot be forced to do it. But he is expected to pass the patient to another doctor who will. The CPSO argues that effective referral is necessary “to protect the public, prevent harm to patients and facilitate access to care for patients in our multicultural, multifaith society, by guiding all physicians on how to uphold their professional and ethical obligations of non-abandonment and of patient-centred care within the context of Ontario’s public health-care system.”

Without the policy of effective referral, equitable access would be “compromised or sacrificed, in a variety of circumstances, more often than not involving vulnerable members of our society at the time of requesting services,” Justice Herman Wilton-Siegel wrote. People in remote communities might request euthanasia. If their doctor refused, they might suffer needlessly and taxpayers would have to foot the bill to subsidise the refusnik’s conscience.

It is remarkable how closely Justice Wilton-Siegel’s text hews to the arguments of bioethicists who have been chipping away at the right to conscientious objection for years.

In 2005 American legal scholar Alta Charo described conscientious objection as “an unfettered  right to personal autonomy while holding monopolistic control over a public good … an abuse of the public trust—all  the worse if it is not in fact a personal act of conscience but, rather, an attempt at cultural conquest’.

In 2006 Oxford’s Julian Savulescu argued in the BMJ that “when conscientious objection compromises the quality, efficiency, or equitable delivery of a service, it should not be tolerated”.

More recently, Canadian bioethicist Udo Schuklenk and a colleague contended in the BMJ that

“If at any given time a doctor is unable to continue practicing due to their—ultimately arbitrary—conscience views, nothing would stop them from leaving the profession and taking up a different vocation. This happens across industries and professions very frequently. Professionals can be expected to take responsibility for the voluntary choices they make.”

Responding to the ruling, Larry Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, said: “We heard from our members and other doctors with conscientious objections over and over again that they felt referral made them complicit and that they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves or stay in the profession if effective referral is still required.”

The case is sure to be appealed, but if the doctors championing conscientious objection fail, the consequences will be dire.

Throughout Canada, doctors would be required to refer for euthanasia. If they refuse, they will be hounded out of their profession, or, at best, shunted into specialties where the question will not arise, like pathology or dermatology.

This ruling shows how quickly tolerance vanishes after euthanasia has been legalised. In the Carter decision which legalised it, Canada’s Supreme Court explicitly stated that legalizing euthanasia did not entail a duty on the part of physicians to provide it. Now, however, 18 months and more than a thousand death after legalisation, conscientious objection is at risk.

It also shows how vulnerable religious-based arguments can be. The plaintiffs contended that referring patients violated their right to religious freedom. While this is true, is this the main ground for conscientious objection? As several doctors pointed out in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year, “Insofar as all refusals of therapy are ultimately justified by the ethical belief that the goal of therapy is to provide benefit and avoid harm, all treatment refusals are matters of conscience.”


This article is published by Michael Cook and MercatorNet under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to MercatorNet. Commercial media must contact MercatorNet for permission and fees.

Canadian nurse forced out for refusing to participate in euthanasia

Lifesite News

Pete Baklinski

PALMER RAPIDS, Ontario, June 14, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — A Canadian nurse no longer has her job helping the sick and the elderly after she was told that she must either assist patients who wanted to kill themselves using the country’s new euthanasia law, or resign.

Mary Jean Martin, a Registered Nurse who worked in middle-management as a Homecare Coordinator in Ontario, said she became a nurse in the late 1980s to help the “vulnerable and the struggling,” not to be a link in a chain that would ultimately lead to a patient’s death.

“Can you imagine being a nurse and being told that you have to help kill someone? That’s so against the philosophy of nursing and it’s so against the heart of the healthcare person,” she told LifeSiteNews in an exclusive interview. . . [Full text]

 

Conscience and Conscientious Objection in Health Care

An ARC Discovery Project, running from 2015 to 2017

Summary of project

Conscientious objection is a central topic in bioethics and is becoming more ever important. This is hardly surprising if we consider the liberal trend in developments of policies about abortion and other bioethical issues worldwide. In recent decades the right to abortion has been granted by many countries, and increasingly many conservative and/or religious doctors are being asked to perform an activity that clashes with their deepest moral and/or religious values.

Debates about conscientious objection are set to become more intense given the increase in medical options which are becoming available or may well be available soon (e.g. embryonic stem cell therapies, genetic selection, human bio-enhancement, sex modification), and given the increasingly multicultural and multi-faith character of Australian society. Not only will doctors conscientiously object to abortion, and to practices commonly acknowledged as morally controversial, but some of them may also object to a wide range of new and even established practices that conflict with their personal values for example, Muslim doctors refusing to examine patients of the opposite sex.

Defining conscientious objection and identifying reliable markers for it, as well as setting the boundaries of legitimate conscientious objection through clear and justifiable principles, are difficult but pressing tasks.

This project advances bioethical debate by producing a philosophically and psychologically informed analysis of conscience, and by applying this to discussions about the legitimate limits to conscientious objection in health care.

 Personnel

Chief Investigator Dr Steve Clarke, Charles Sturt University

Chief Investigator Prof. Jeanette Kennett, Macquarie University

Partner Investigator Prof. Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford

[Full text]

Doctors needed. Leave your conscience at home

 National Post

Marni Soupcoff

In a new paper, two prominent bioethicists suggest that all doctors should be required to see to it personally that any medical procedure — including abortions and assisted suicides — be performed for patients who request and qualify for them.

This should be the case, the authors argue, despite any personal moral or religious qualms the doctors may have about the operations or prescriptions in question. Sadly for devout Catholics, evangelical Protestants or others with deep religious or moral convictions, the prospect of medical school itself would be completely off the table if co-authors Udo Schuklenk and Julian Savulescu had their way; they argue that medical students should be screened for over-active consciences when it comes to things like contraception, abortion and euthanasia. Apparently those for whom these issues are anything but no-brainers shouldn’t be considered acceptable physician material at all. . . [Full text]

 

Doctors Have no Right to Refuse Medical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception

Abstract:  In an article in this journal, Christopher Cowley argues that we have ‘misunderstood the special nature of medicine, and have misunderstood the motivations of the conscientious objectors’. We have not. It is Cowley who has misunderstood the role of personal values in the profession of medicine. We argue that there should be better protections for patients from doctors’ personal values and there should be more severe restrictions on the right to conscientious objection, particularly in relation to assisted dying. We argue that eligible patients could be guaranteed access to medical services that are subject to conscientious objections by: (1) removing a right to conscientious objection; (2) selecting candidates into relevant medical specialities or general practice who do not have objections; (3) demonopolizing the provision of these services away from the medical profession.

Savulescu J, Schuklenk U.  (2016) Doctors Have no Right to Refuse Medical Assistance in Dying, Abortion or Contraception. Bioethics. doi:10.1111/bioe.12288

Ban conscientious objection by Canadian doctors, urge ethicists in volatile commentary

National Post

Tom Blackwell

Authorities should bar doctors from refusing to provide such services as abortion and assisted death on moral grounds, and screen out potential medical students who might impose their values on patients, leading Canadian and British bioethicists argue in a provocative new commentary.

The paper by professors at Queen’s and Oxford universities, who are also editors of two major bioethics journals, throws rocket fuel onto a debate already inflamed by the new law allowing assisted death.

They argue that physicians have no right to opt out of lawful medical services — from abortion to prescribing contraceptives — that are requested by a patient and in the person’s interest.

Those who let conscientious objection affect patient care are clearly unprofessional, say Udo Schuklenk and Julian Savulescu.

“Doctors must put patients’ interests ahead of their own integrity,” they write in the journal Bioethics. . . [Full text]

    

Bioethicist calls for a ban on doctors’ conscientious objection

The Sydney Morning Herald

Cameron Atfield

Doctors working in the public system should be banned from refusing to perform certain procedures, such as abortions, because of their religious beliefs, a leading bioethicist will argue in Brisbane next week.

Oxford-based Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu will make the argument at a public lecture at the Queensland University of Technology’s Australian Centre for Health Law Research next Tuesday.

In his lecture, Professor Savulescu will also argue doctors and health professionals should only enter medical specialities in which their values would not be in conflict with routine legal medical procedures. . . [Full text]

The unsettled status of conscientious objection in the UK

BioEdge

Michael Cook

What are the rights of doctors who have a conscientious objection to certain procedures in the United Kingdom? The slightly confusing status quo is the subject of an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics by a Cambridge University academic, John Adenitire.

Dr Adenitire sketches a gradation of hostility towards conscientious objection.

1. At the very top there are Julian Savulescu and others who have argued that conscientious objection is “a door to a Pandora’s box of idiosyncratic, bigoted, discriminatory medicine” and has little place in modern medical practice. This is not a widely shared view.

2. Then there is the British Medical Association (BMA), the profession’s “trade union”, which defends conscientious objection only in three specific scenarios. It “should ordinarily be limited to those procedures where statute recognises their right (abortion and fertility treatment) and to withdrawing life-prolonging treatment from patients who lack capacity, where other doctors are in a position to take over the care.”

3. And then there is the General Medical Council (GMC), the profession’s regulator in the UK, which allows conscientious objection, albeit with a number of caveats. According to its 2013 policy statement, Personal beliefs and medical practice: “You may choose to opt out of providing a particular procedure because of your personal beliefs and values, as long as this does not result in direct or indirect discrimination against, or harassment of, individual patients or groups of patients. This means you must not refuse to treat a particular patient or group of patients because of your personal beliefs or views about them.‡ And you must not refuse to treat the health consequences of lifestyle choices to which you object because of your beliefs.”

4. Most accommodating of all is a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the British case of Eweida in 2013. It applied Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights to several cases of discrimination in the UK. Article 9 guarantees “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, “subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”.

It is Dr Adenitire’s contention that the Eweida ruling “effectively provides that medical professionals have the right to conscientiously object to providing certain healthcare services well beyond the scope endorsed by the BMA”.

This implies that “Given the unsettled nature of the law on the topic, [National Health Service] employers will have to proceed very cautiously as it will not always be clear whether denying a request will be considered lawful by a court. This entails that NHS bodies may be at risk of expensive legal challenges by medical professionals whose requests have been denied.”

Dr Adenitire therefore believes that the BMA’s policy should be changed to align more closely to the Eweida ruling.

However, the law is still unsettled and Dr Adenitire is not necessarily hostile to proposals for legalised assisted dying which are currently being debated in the UK. In an unpublished paper he goes on to argue that in certain circumstances doctors already have a “conscience-based right to provide assistance in dying”.


cclicense-some-rightsThis article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to BioEdge. Commercial media must contact BioEdge for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

Genetic screening to improve intelligence

Writing in The Conversation, ethicist Julian Savulescu discusses recently published findings that indicate that children with two copies of a common gene (Thr92Ala) and low thyroid hormone levels apparently increase the likelihood of low IQ by a factor of four.  Since the “risk of low intelligence” depends upon both the genetic configuration and hormonal level, he suggests that such children could be treated with supplemental thyroid hormones “to enhance their intelligence.”

The “low intelligence” to which he refers is the 4 % of the U.K. population estimated to have an IQ of between 70 and 85.

“If we could enhance their intelligence, say with thyroid hormone supplementation,” he writes, “we should.”

Savulescu’s focus on intelligence in this case should not become a distraction.  Supplementing hormones seems to present no special ethical problems, since the goal in that case would not be eugenic perfectionism or enhancement, but therapeutic correction of a deficiency.  However, Savulescu goes beyond this to propose that IVF embryos be screened, and that embryos found to have two copies of the Thr92Ala gene not be selected for implantation.  What is unstated is that the ‘defective’ embryos should be killed.  This would be an ethical/moral problem for anyone who holds that deliberately killing human embryos is wrong.

 

Conscience, values, and justice in Savulescu

Alvan A. Ikoku

Virtual Mentor. 2013 Mar 1;15(3):208-12. doi: 10.1001/virtualmentor.2013.15.3.jdsc1-1303. PubMed PMID: 23472810

Introduction

Savulescu’s 2006 article in the British Medical Journal takes up perennially unfinished work on the nature and place of conscience, carried out against the background of contested laws shaped by states and their institutions as well as peoples and their professions. His writing on conscientious objection essentially returns to and intervenes in an extended conversation made possible by continued shifts in relations between individual citizens and loci of authority; shifts that characterized the mid-to-late decades of the twentieth century, when debates about war, civil rights, reproduction, and capital punishment made objection a vital mode of participation and engendered fields of practice and scholarship organized around the mission to decentralize decision making. [Full Text]