Since medically assisted death became legal in Canada in 2016, 37 Albertans have been denied their rights at faith-based health centres and had to be transferred to another facility to follow through on their requests. It’s a situation that has raised questions around the future of faith-based hospitals in the province.
“You know they’re going to die. It’s already hard,” Dying with Dignity CEO Shanaaz Gokool said on Monday. “And what we really want is to remove barriers that make a difficult situation so much worse.”
Dying with Dignity says the problem isn’t just about hospitals, suggesting there are many facilities (such as hospices and long-term care facilities in Alberta) where dying patients would have to be transferred to follow through with their rights.
“You can see how that creates real burdens on people when they are trying to access their right to assisted death,” Gokool said.
Covenant Health is a Catholic-run and publicly funded health organization that is allowed to opt out of medically assisted deaths for conscience reasons.
A new Dying with Dignity petition is calling on Canada’s premiers to ensure fair access at all health facilities.
“There is a faith-based healthcare system in Alberta with the Covenant system and they do receive public funds,” Mount Royal University religious studies professor Steven Engler said. “So the core issue is whether they should be getting government funding in the case where they refuse to comply with government policy.”
Alberta bishops came out with a policy two years ago, stating the Catholic position that physician-assisted death is immoral.
Engler says the core argument is theological.
“The Catholic position is: it’s God who decides when we die, not us,” he said. “And if you participate in that, either as a physician or as a person seeking to end your own life, you are putting your soul at peril.”
Alberta’s health minister isn’t keen on making any changes and she expects faith-based health centres to continue.
Sarah Hoffman said they are a part of Alberta’s history and she believes there is a balance between the rights of patients and the rights of healthcare providers.
“I think we’re doing a good job today,” Hoffman said on Monday. “If things were to change, I would certainly revisit that, but I think where we are at today with the federal law and with the provision of service, I think that we are meeting the needs for Albertans.”
Covenant Health responded to Global News with a written statement on Monday.
“Covenant Health responds with compassion and respect to all who verbalize requests for medical assistance in dying, beginning with supporting the person and ensuring their expressed needs are understood and duly acknowledged.
“Our response also includes ensuring a person has access to further information, including third-party assessment of eligibility and, potentially, transfer for provision of medical assistance in dying.
“Alberta Health Services and Covenant Health have worked together through extensive and ongoing consultation to develop policies and effective processes to support appropriate and timely access to assisted dying. Like all care providers in Alberta, Covenant Health works with Alberta’s Care Coordination Service to ensure patients are supported and have access to services, including palliative and hospice care. This system has been viewed as a model for other jurisdictions across Canada to follow.”
According to Alberta Health Services, there have been 268 medically assisted deaths in Alberta since June 2016.
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