Abstract The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has variously expressed support for physician freedom of conscience in codes of ethics, resolutions at successive General Councils and in policies concerning specific procedures. For over fifty years it has insisted that physicians should not be compelled to make referrals for procedures to which they object for reasons of conscience.
It appears that the great majority of CMA members support this position, but are unaware of its history. This paper revisits this history at a time when increasingly strident claims have culminated in demands that the state should force objecting physicians to collaborate in euthanasia and assisted suicide by referral.
The first CMA “conscience clause” was introduced into the Code of Ethics in 1970 following the reform of Canada’s abortion law. The provision did not mention conscience (or abortion) but was clearly intended to protect physician freedom of conscience. It was reaffirmed and more clearly articulated the following year by the CMA Annual General Council.
A dramatic increase in the demand for abortion resulted in pressure on health care workers and institutions. A 1977 amendment of the Code was widely interpreted to require objecting physicians to refer for abortion. This caused significant division within the Association and was removed in 1978.
The protection of conscience provision in the Code of Ethics remained unchanged after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s abortion law in 1988. The CMA stressed that there should be no discrimination against physicians who refused or who agreed to participate in abortion.
Twelve years later the CMA Director of Ethics said there was “no ethical consensus” to support mandatory referral, adding subsequently that physicians were not obliged to do what they believed was wrong. This position was supported by the Canadian Psychiatric Association.
The CMA rejected claims by two law professors in 2006 that objecting physicians were required to refer for abortion, two years later reiterating its support for physicians who refused to do so. These skirmishes reflected a continuing and increasing threat, but do not appear to have caused the CMA to explore or develop the foundation of its commitment to protect physician freedom of conscience.
As the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS) made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014, CMA leaders moved the Association from opposition to the procedures to purported “neutrality” and support for physician freedom of conscience. However, in expressing unconditional support for legal EAS, the changed policy potentially exposed many physicians to demands that could generate serious conflicts of conscience.
When the Supreme Court ruled in Carter the CMA leadership was ready to implement euthanasia and assisted suicide, but not to mount a cogent, articulate and persuasive defence of physician freedom of conscience. CMA leaders waffled on the issue of mandatory referral to EAS providers when it exploded in the months following the ruling. However, a substantial majority of CMA members opposed mandatory referral, and the CMA General Council approved a policy framework for implementing the Carter decision did not require it.
The first CMA statement addressing the subject of physician freedom of conscience at a foundational level was a 2016 submission opposing a state regulator’s plan to compel objecting physicians to make an “effective referral” to EAS providers. Important elements in the submission were incorporated into CMA policy Medical Assistance in Dying the following year.
In brief, the CMA expects physicians to notify patients of their objections to EAS and respond to patient requests for EAS by acknowledging them respectfully and providing information they need to exercise moral agency and give effect to their decisions. This includes information about how to access an appropriate health care network. Physicians are not obliged to provide or participate in EAS or to facilitate it by referral to a person or entity willing to provide the service. However, they must cooperate in a transfer of care initiated by the patient or others and transfer medical records upon request. While this policy is specific to euthanasia and assisted suicide, it can be applied to other procedures. There is no principled reason to suggest otherwise.
Relevant sections of the CMA’s new Code of Ethics and Professionalism adopted in 2018 are consistent with these requirements and reflect the position on referral that the CMA has now held for fifty years. The Code’s emphasis on professionalism does not imply that “professional expectations” override physician freedom of conscience, an implication inconsistent with the emphasis placed on moral agency, integrity and conscience in the Code and CMA policy statements. Further, claims about “professional expectations” are not neutral. Subordinating freedom of conscience to a dominant or purportedly “neutral” theory of professionalism will generate illicit discrimination and exacerbate rather than resolve conflict within the profession.
Informed by careful reflection about the role and importance of freedom of conscience in health care, a serviceable stand-alone policy on physician freedom of conscience could be drafted by drawing on past CMA statements, its submission to the CPSO on effective referral, and the revised CMA Medical Assistance in Dying policy. However, in doing so it is essential to avoid entanglement in controversies about the acceptability of morally contested procedures. Instead, a broad and principled approach is necessary, one that recognizes that freedom of conscience serves the fundamental good and dignity of the physician as a human person, not merely professional autonomy or independence.
Impact on freedom of conscience for health care practitioners and institutions
Executive Summary New South Wales’ Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2022 No. 17, drafted and introduced by Independent MLA Alex Greenwich, closely resembles Queensland’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2021. It will legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide (termed “voluntary assisted dying”) in the Australian state when it comes into force in January, 2023. This review considers the impact the Act may have on health care workers and institutions opposed to euthanasia or assisted suicide (EAS) for reasons of conscience. Part I outlines the main features of the law, providing a context for discussion of provisions relevant to freedom of conscience in Part II (Individual Freedom of Conscience) and Part III (Institutional & Collective Freedom of Conscience).
People seeking euthanasia/assisted suicide (EAS) must be adults with an advanced, progressive disease or medical condition that is causing suffering (of any degree or kind) and that is expected to cause death within 12 months (in the case of neurodegenerative conditions) or within 6 months in all other cases. They must be acting voluntarily, without pressure or duress, and be capable of making and communicating medical decisions. They can be mentally impaired or have dementia or a disability, but EAS cannot be provided for mental impairment, dementia or disability alone. Decision-making capacity is presumed in the absence of evidence to the contrary if a patient appears to understand the consequences of a decision. The Act acknowledges that capacity can be temporarily or permanently lost. It imposes residency requirements that can be waived for compassionate reasons.
Only EAS-trained medical practitioners with least ten years general practice experience or specialist credentials can act as EAS coordinators and consultants. Other EAS trained medical practitioners and nurse practitioners may administer euthanasia.
Discussion with patients
It appears that NSW legislators muddled the wording of the provision about discussions with patients while attempting to modify the comparable provision in Queensland’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2021. All health care workers, contracted care service workers and medical practitioners can initiate discussion about or suggest euthanasia/assisted suicide to patients, even if patients have not expressed an interest, as long as they provide other information required by the Act. If a patient asks about EAS, contracted care service workers and health care workers other than medical practitioners can provide EAS information, but need not provide information about available options or suggest that the patient talk to a medical practitioner. However, none are required to suggest or initiate discussion about EAS.
The EAS process
The EAS process begins with a “clear and unambiguous” first request to a medical practitioner made personally by a patient (not a third party). After discussing alternative options, the medical practitioner must accept or reject the request and promptly notify the patient. A practitioner who rejects a request must advise the patient that others may be able to assist, and must provide information about them or the Voluntary Assisted Dying Care Navigator Service. An EAS-qualified medical practitioner who accepts a request becomes the coordinating practitioner, responsible for supervising the EAS request, assessment and administration process.
A medical practitioner who accepts a request must assess the patient’s eligiblity. Patients deemed eligible must be referred to a consulting practitioner to confirm the assessment, and can be referred repeatedly to consulting practitioners until eligibility is confirmed. Referrals to specialists are optional, and their opinions are not binding.
A patient deemed eligible by two medical practitioners and who wishes to proceed must make a second EAS request, then a written declaration witnessed by two people, and a final request. Finally, with the coordinating practitioner’s assistance, me must make an administration decision: to opt for assisted suicide or euthanasia. Assisted suicide is less reliable than euthanasia, and experience elsewhere demonstrates that very few choose assisted suicide when both euthanasia and assisted suicide are available.
The second request, final request, and administration decision could all occur during the same consultation, although a final request cannot be made until the day after the completion of the second (consulting) assessment, and cannot normally be made within five days of a first request; the latter requirement can be waived if the patient may lose capacity or die before EAS can be provided.
Subject to Australian national laws, the Act explicitly allows the use of audiovisual communication for first and final requests and administration decisions. The Act does not explicity prohibit audiovisual communication for EAS assessments. Australia’s Criminal Code currently prevents this. Should the Code be amended to allow it, videoconferencing for first and final requests and administration decisions would immediately be allowed, and it appears that professional regulators in New South Wales would be able to permit videoconferencing for EAS assessements.
Coordinating practitioners must be authorised by the Voluntary Assisted Dying Board (the Board) to prescribe a lethal substance for each patient, whether it is to be practioner-administered or self-administered. A practitioner providing euthanasia must have an adult witness present and ensure that the patient has decision-making capacity and is acting voluntarily. A patient can self-administer lethal medication at any time and place, without notifying anyone. Neither a witness or confirmation of decision-making capacity or voluntariness is required. It is thus possible for death by self-administration to occur in public or inconvenient places or remain undiscovered for some time. If the patient is incapacitated but does not die after being administered or ingesting the lethal substance, it does not appear that an additional lethal dose can be given to kill the patient unless the patient regains capacity and consents.
The wording of the Act seems to leave open the possibility that a friend, family member, agent or contact person could put the substance to or into the mouth of a patient who needs help to self-administer it, which, in some circumstances, would be indistinguishable from administering it. A required statutory instruction to patients that they are not obliged to self-administer the lethal substance could contribute to this outcome.
The Act requires the cause of death be falsified by reporting it as the disease or medical condition for with EAS was approved. Falsification of the cause of death on death certificates is contrary to international standards for identifying causes of death that are acknowledged by the Australian government. Falsification of death certificates contributed to the murder of over 200 patients by a British medical practitioner and led to unfavourable comments by the chairman of the subsequent inquiry into the murders.
Voluntary Assisted Dying Care Navigator Service
The New South Wales government will establish the Voluntary Assisted Dying Care Navigator service to assist those seeking “support, assistance and information” about EAS services. VADCNS will be a service dedicated to enabling euthanasia/assisted suicide, so it will not be equivalent to a service providing information and assistance related to a variety of government and health services.
Institutions are categorized as “residential facilities” like nursing homes, hostels, group homes, etc. operated by “relevant entities” (excluding individuals) and “health care establishments” like hospitals or hospices operated by “health care entities” (including individuals). They may decide not to provide EAS related services and information.
The Act imposes obligations on residential facilities and health care establishments if a person in their care requests EAS information or services that they do not provide. They must allow a VADCNS employee or someone else “reasonable access” to anyone in their to provide EAS information.
Generally speaking, governing entities are expected to facilitate the transfer of patients in health care establishments to and from a location where EAS services can be provided.
On the other hand, they are expected to allow all EAS services in residential facilities for all permanent residents, and for all occupants who are not permanent residents if an EAS practitioner decides that transferring them “would not be reasonable in the circumstances.”
The operation of the Act is to be overseen by an appointed Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board. It must approve each EAS application and residency exemption, maintain a list of registered health practitioners willing to be involved in EAS services and monitor and report annually upon the operation of the Act. The Supreme Court of New South Wales is empowered to review and overturn decisions about residency, capacity, and voluntariness (not diagnosis or prognosis). Coordinating practitioners may refuse to continue if the Court overturns a decision about capacity or voluntariness, but must then transfer the patient to the consulting practitioner or someone eligible to act as coordinating practitioner.
Illusion of neutrality
The Act identifies eleven principles underpinning the statute and seems to give equal weight to all of them. Six are irrelevant to conflicts of conscience in relation to supporting or participating in euthanasia/assisted suicide and five are subject to morally partisan interpretations. This enables an adjudicator to impose subjective and contested views about the meaning and importance of each principle during an ostensibly neutral “rights balancing” analysis. No one should be under the illusion that the principles identified in the Act can be fairly and objectively applied in a “rights balancing” exercise when there is fundamental disagreement about what they mean.
The provision of euthanasia or assisted suicide under the Act is not considered palliative care, which is clearly distinguished as an alternative option. People hold different views about the moral acceptability of euthanasia and assisted suicide and whether or not the procedures are forms of health care or medical practice. However, the Act assumes that euthanasia and assisted suicide are morally acceptable forms of healthcare and must be characterized as death by natural causes rather than homicide or suicide. This does not demonstrate respect for different views. On the contrary: it effectively imposes a chokehold on public discourse, suppressing the words needed those opposed to the Act to express their reasoning.
Individual Freedom of Conscience
Conflicts of conscience
The health care professions are not divided into sharply defined groups of objecting and non-objecting practitioners. The position of many practitioners depends upon the nature of the illness or condition, opinions about decision-making capacity, voluntariness, or other issues they consider relevant.
The broader the grounds for euthanasia and assisted suicide, the more likely it is that conflicts of conscience will arise. By restricting eligibility to competent adults with terminal illnesses or conditions, and by explicitly ruling out EAS for disability, dementia or “mental health impairment” alone, the Act reduces the number of practitioners likely to experience conflicts of conscience when it comes into force.
The ability of practitioners to perform capacity assessments for euthanasia and assisted suicide is disputed, and assessment of limited, fluctuating and episodic capacity can be particularly troublesome. Patients could be deemed capable of choosing euthanasia/assisted suicide even if they are considered incapable of challenging medical decisions about alternative treatments and palliative care. The burden of illness may make it easier to understand the EAS process than alternative treatment options, and to choose what is more easily understood rather than what might offer significant symptom relief. Even practitioners willing to facilitate euthanasia for clear-headed patients may not be confident that they can safely act upon a request made when the clouds of major depressive disorder part for a time, or if the patient recovers what another colleague considers “enough” capacity to make a valid request.
Risk assessments by EAS supporters, uncommitted practitioners and EAS opponents may reflect significantly different views about life-or-death decisions based on different underlying philosophical or ethical views. A priori biases in favour of an outcome cannot be avoided in EAS assessments.
Overturning practitioner decisions
The New South Wales Supreme Court can overturn a coordinating practitioner’s conclusion that a patient is ineligible for EAS because of involuntariness or lack capacity. This can cause a problem for practitioners who are certain of their conclusion because, though they can withdraw, the Act requires them to transfer the patient to a colleague willing to continue the EAS process. They may well consider this unacceptable, and it is completely unnecessary. The Act should be amended to require the Voluntary Assisted Dying Board to find a new coordinating practitioner should the coordinating practitioner withdraw in these circumstances.
Protection for objecting practitioners
All health care workers, contracted care service workers and medical practitioners can initiate discussion about or suggest euthanasia/assisted suicide to patients, even if patients have not expressed an interest, but they are not required to do so. By explicitly making discussion optional, the Act supports both practitioners who want to initiate discussion about EAS and those who think it best to let patients take the lead, responding to their enquiries or apparent interests.
All registered health practitioners who conscientiously object to EAS may refuse to participate in any part of the EAS process and refuse to be present when EAS is provided. The wording of the relevant provision is ambivalent, but the Act does not require objecting practitioners to do anything other than record the refusal and the reason for it in the patient’s medical record and report the refusal and reason for it to the Voluntary Assisted Dying Board. Further, objecting practitioners who refuse to do something (such as referral) are protected from disciplinary action by regulators if they act in good faith and reasonably believe that the refusal is in accordance with the Act. Hence, the starting point for objecting practitioners pressured by regulators or others to do more should be that the Act not only does not require it, but (interpreting the ambivalent provision in a fully protective sense) affirms that they need not do so.
Protection for other care workers
The protection for individual freedom of conscience offered by the Act is limited to registered health care practitioners. No protection is provided for the many people involved in the provision of health care, personal care and aged care who are not registered health practitioners, even though the Act explicitly recognizes their work. For example, nothing in the Act prevents employers from requiring a personal care worker or social worker to actively support the provision of EAS or to be present when lethal medication is administered.
Falsification of death certificates
Regardless of their views about euthanasia and assisted suicide, some medical practitioners are likely to object to falsifying the cause of death in death certificates. They may be uncomfortable about lying or dissembling to families about how their loved ones died or concerned that falsifying records and lying is likely to undermine the trust essential to the practice of medicine. Others may have principled objections to falsifying documents, lying, dissembling and other forms of deception under any circumstances. Finally, some may consider falsification ill-advised because it is likely to compromise important epidemiological data. If the state insists that death certificates must be falsified, the Act should be amended to make a medical member of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board responsible for completing EAS death certificates (assuming that a Board member’s objection to doing so would also be accommodated).
Institutional & Collective Freedom of Conscience
Factors relevant to moral decision-making by entities/collectives are not necessarily identical to those concerning individuals, and the concept of individual freedom of conscience is applied analogically to collectives, so some differences are to be expected. This paper presumes that entities/collectives are entitled to rely upon constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience, notwithstanding differences between individuals and collectives in the exercise of that freedom. Individuals and entities/collectives are equally concerned to avoid complicity in perceived wrongdoing. This obviously includes taking part directly in what they deem to be a wrongful act, but also causally contributing to by collaboration or contingent cooperation.
The Act does not admit the possibility of conscientious objection by entities/collectives. Consistent with this, the Act acknowledges the need to respect individuals’ culture, religion, beliefs, values and personal characteristics, but not those of entities/collectives. It imposes a number of constraints and requirements on objecting entities/collectives specifically to compel their cooperation and even collaboration, some of which go beyond legal constraints arising from legal occupancy status. Refusal to participate in or facilitate killing people for moral reasons is placed on the same level as refusals based on pragmatic considerations like lack of trained personnel or management of institutional branding. The Act thus implies that guarantees of freedom of conscience or religion are irrelevant to decision-making by entities/collectives about involvement in killing people, and, if they defend refusals on that basis, the Act puts them at a disadvantage.
The Act is is concerned with two kinds of institutions: “residential facilities” like nursing homes, hostels, group homes, etc. operated by “relevant entities” (excluding individuals), and “health care establishments” like hospitals or hospices operated by “health care entities” (including individuals). Regardless of structure, an “institution” in the sense relevant here always manifests a collective enterprise by individuals, so the term “entity/collective” is used here to keep this in mind.
Participation, cooperation, collaboration
The Act does not require entities/collectives to provide euthanasia or assisted or even to provide information about the procedures, so it does not threaten institutional freedom of conscience in relation to direct participation in EAS services. Instead, the Act is designed to enable the state to compel unwilling entities/collectives to cooperate and perhaps collaborate in killing people in their care or helping them kill themselves, and to disadvantage any that resist by appeals to freedom of conscience.
However, patients and practitioners cannot proceed with EAS in an objecting institution unless they notify insititutional authorities at each stage in the EAS process. This is fortunate, because providing EAS services in a private apartment in a residential facility would be radically different from providing them behind a curtain in a room shared with others, and the Act does not distinguish between the two situations. Nothing in the Act prevents objecting entities/collectives from imposing conditions on EAS-related activities that they are required to permit once they have been notified.
Objecting entities/collectives must allow all institutional occupants access to EAS information. They could direct all patient enquiries about EAS to staff members trained to provide patients with information necessary to enable informed decision-making without compromising institutional moral integrity. Hence, the cooperation required in providing information about EAS does not appear to undermine institutional freedom of conscience.
First and final EAS requests
The Act leaves room for objecting entities/collectives to direct staff to fully and compassionately explore and document first requests, refuse those found to be clear and unambiguous, and provide information enabling patients to seek EAS elsewhere. They can thus comply with a number of the Act’s provisions without compromising institutional moral integrity. However, the Act also requires objecting entities/collectives to allow EAS practitioners to accept first and final requests from anyone in their health care establishments and residential facilities. Accepting requests (i.e., agreeing to act upon them), especially final requests, is more directly supportive of and causally related to euthanasia and assisted suicide than merely receiving and responding to requests, and thus more likely to be problematic for objecting entities/collectives.
Declarations, EAS assessments, administration decisions, and administration of lethal substance
Moreover, the Act demands that objecting entities/collectives allow EAS practitioners to provide all EAS assessments, consultations and euthanasia/assisted suicide for permanent residents in residential facilities. Contingent cooperation of this kind is likely to be problematic, especially in relation to patients who share rooms with others. If EAS practitioners cannot attend, objecting entities/collectives must “take reasonable steps to facilitate the transfer” EAS candidates to a location where they can receive EAS services, including lethal injection. This suggests that active collaboration might be expected, and it goes well beyond merely granting the equivalent of a residential tenancy right to service delivery at home. Landlords are not forced to help tenants travel to see EAS practitioners who can’t make home visits.
Objecting entities/collectives may refuse to allow the EAS process for institutional occupants in health care establishments and residential facilities only if, once more, they “take reasonable steps to facilitate” transfers to enable the procedures elsewhere. If that means initiating rather than simply cooperating in a transfer requested by others, the purported compromise may amount to a choice between two objectionable alternatives. In addition, the Act allows legal action against objecting entities/collectives that require transfers from their health care establishments for EAS procedures (including euthanasia and assisted suicide) if transfer “would not be reasonable in the circumstances.” It also enables patients and EAS practitioners to veto transfers of institutional occupants from residential facilities, thus forcing objecting entities/collectives to cooperate.
The Act’s demands that qualified practitioners be allowed to provide EAS services to patients in facilities poses a dilemma for objecting entities/collectives in granting credentials. Granting credentials for EAS would explicitly affirm the acceptability of euthanasia/assisted suicide and authorize the procedures, thus contradicting their moral commitments. However, granting credentials may be necessary to avoid legal liability, and it may be the only way for objecting entities/collectives to impose enforceable conditions and restrictions on provision of the service in order to protect other patients, staff and mitigate harm to institutional moral integrity.
The provisions of the Act suggest that NSW legislators not only believe that it is morally acceptable to kill patients or help them kill themselves in accordance with their law, but are unable to imagine or unwilling to concede that others could reasonably and collectively hold and live in accordance with the contrary view, and should be entitled to do so in a democratic state. This demonstrates a lack of moral imagination or unreflective and entrenched authoritarianism inconsistent with the best traditions of liberal democracy.
Sean Murphy, Ramona Coelho, Philippe D. Violette, Ewan C. Goligher, Timothy Lau, Sheila Rutledge Harding, Rene Leiva
Extract Since 1948 the Declaration of Geneva (the Declaration) has insisted that physicians must practise medicine “with conscience and dignity.” In 2017 this provision was modified by adding, “and in accordance with good medical practice” .
Good medical practice in Canada is said to include providing euthanasia and assisted suicide or arranging for someone else to do so. From this perspective, physicians who cannot in conscience kill their patients or collaborate in killing are not acting “in accordance with good medical practice,” and – some might say – the revised Declaration.
However, this merely literal application of the text cannot be correct, since the WMA later reaffirmed its support for physicians who refuse to provide or refer for euthanasia and assisted suicide even where they are considered good medical practice . A reading informed by the history of the document is necessary and consistent with the care taken in its revision . This yields a rational and coherent account of the relationship of conscience and dignity to medical practice.
Declaration of Geneva (1948), International Code of Medical Ethics (1949)
Sean Murphy, Ramona Coelho, Philippe D. Violette, Ewan C. Goligher, Timothy Lau, Sheila Rutledge Harding
Extract Practising Medicine “with conscience and dignity” Beginning with the Declaration of Geneva (the Declaration), for over 70 years the World Medical Association (WMA) has maintained that physicians must practise medicine with conscience and dignity . On the Declaration’s 70th anniversary, seven associate WMA members raised serious concerns about their ability to remain in medical practice if they fulfil this obligation by refusing to support or collaborate in the killing of their patients by euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS).The physicians practise in Canada, where euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS) are legal, [3,4] recognized as therapeutic medical services by the national medical association [5,6] and provided through a public health care system controlled by the state, which also regulates medical practice and medical ethics. The national government is now poised to make EAS available for any serious and incurable medical condition, vastly increasing the number of patients legally eligible for the service .
In these circumstances, it is urgent to reassert that the duty to practise medicine “with conscience and dignity” includes unyielding refusal to do what one believes to be wrong even in the face of overwhelming pressure exerted by the state, the medico-legal establishment and even by medical leaders and colleagues. That the founders of the WMA not only supported but expected such principled obstinacy is evident in the WMA’s early history and the development of the Declaration, all of which remain surprisingly relevant . . .
Responding to articles by CMA officials (BMJ 2019; 364)
Extract It is disconcerting to find that the CMA’s President-Elect thinks that Canadian law “does not compel any physician to be involved in an act or procedure that would violate their values or faith.” The state medical regulator in Canada’s largest province has enacted policies that do just that, requiring physicians who refuse to kill their patients to find a colleague who will. These policies do have the force of law, and objecting physicians were forced to launch an expensive constitutional challenge to defend themselves. The Protection of Conscience Project and others have intervened in the case to support them; the CMA has not.
Further, the Canadian Medical Association’s assertion that it has successfully adopted a “neutral” position on euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS) is challenged in a World Medical Journal article by seven Canadian physicians. “For refusing to collaborate in killing our patients,” they write, “many of us now risk discipline and expulsion from the medical profession,” are accused of human rights violations and “even called bigots.” . . .
Three physicians and a lawyer have written an article published in the May issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The lead author, Dr. James Downar, is co-chair of a euthanasia/assisted suicide advocacy group.
Anticipating a change in the law, the authors warn that “well-rehearsed debates” about sanctity of life and personal autonomy “may become obsolete.”
“We need to start to answer some challenging questions in preparation for the possibility that physician-assisted death will be available in Canada soon,” they write.
Among the questions they pose, one raises two particularly sensitive issues:
Will physicians who are conscientious objectors be obliged to present physician-assisted death as an option to patients and facilitate transfers of patients to other physicians or facilities?
As a matter of law and ethics, physicians are expected to advise patients of all reasonable legal options for treatment so that patients can provide informed consent to it. However, many physicians who are strongly opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide may view the “presentation of an option” for either procedure as inherently abusive of vulnerable patients. This problem does not usually arise with respect to other morally contested procedures, like abortion or contraception.
A requirement to “facilitate transfers” of patients would probably be acceptable if it involved only the kind of cooperation normally involved in the transfer of records when a patient is taken on by a different physician; this is all that is required in Belgium, Oregon and Washington State. However, a demand that objecting physicians refer patients or actively initiate transfers would be resisted by those who would consider such actions to involve unacceptable complicity in killing. The Supreme Court of the Philippines recognized this issue when it struck down a mandatory referral requirement in the country’s Reproductive Health Law as an unconstitutional violation of freedom of conscience.
Abstract The widespread emergence of innumerable technologies within health care has complicated the choices facing caregivers and their patients. The escalation of knowledge and technical innovation has been accompanied by an erosion of moral and ethical consensus among health providers that is reflected in the abandonment of the Hippocratic Oath as the immutable bedrock of medical ethics. Ethical conflicts arise when the values of health professionals collide with the expressed wishes of patients or the dictates of regulatory bodies and administrators. Increasing attempts by groups outside of the medical profession to limit freedom of conscience for health providers has raised concern and consternation among some health professionals. The personal and professional impact of health professionals surrendering freedom of conscience and participating in actions they deem malevolent or unethical has not been adequately studied and may not be inconsequential when considering the recognized impact of other circumstances of coerced complicity. We argue that the distinction between the two ways that freedom of conscience is exercised (avoiding a perceived evil and seeking a perceived good) provides a rational basis for a principled limitation of this fundamental freedom.
Responding to Cantor, Julie D., Conscientious Objection Gone Awry – Restoring Selfless Professionalism in Medicine. N Eng J Med 360;15, 9 April, 2009
Extract Judging from the title of her article, Professor Julie D. Cantor believes that “selfless professionalism” in medicine is being destroyed by health care workers who will not do what they believe to be wrong.
She also implies that Americans have access to health care only because health care workers are compelled to provide services that they find morally repugnant. At least, that is the inference to be drawn from her warning that health care “could grind to a halt” if a federal protection of conscience regulation were “[t]aken to its logical extreme.”
Such anxiety is inconsistent with the fact that religious believers and organizations have been providing health care in the United States for generations. If anything, this demonstrates that health care is provided to many Americans – and many of the poorest Americans – because of the commitment of health care workers to their moral convictions, not in spite of them.
Holly Fernandez Lynch. Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise. Boston: The MIT Press, 2008. 368 pp. ISBN: 9780262123051
Extract Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care was published in 2008 as the 24th volume in the Basic Bioethics series from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is an American book dealing with the American political and legal controversies over freedom of conscience in health care. However, the discussion of the American experience by Holly Fernandez Lynch is relevant elsewhere, since the United States has the most extensive and varied network of protection of conscience legislation in the world.
While acknowledging that freedom of conscience is of concern to all health care workers and institutions, Fernandez Lynch focuses exclusively on physicians. This carefully and deliberately restricted focus is one of the strengths of the book.
After a preface and introduction, discussion and argument occupy about 260 pages, supplemented by 53 pages of end notes, many of which offer expanded comment on the text. A good 12 page index has been included, as well as four pages of cited statutes and cases. The earliest source found in a list of 300 references is from 1951; the rest date from 1972 to 2007. . .
. . . . As the subtitle of the book indicates, she is seeking a compromise that will provide “maximal liberty for all parties.” She believes that freedom of conscience for physicians and the provision of legal medical services are both important social goals, and that they are not incompatible. Thus, she rejects “all-or-nothing” strategies that seek “total victory.” Ultimately, quoting the Protection of Conscience Project, she affirms that all legitimate concerns can be met by “dialogue, prudent planning, and the exercise of tolerance, imagination and political will.”
Responding to: Charo RA. The Celestial Fire of Conscience – Refusing to Deliver Medical Care N Eng J Med 352:24, June 16, 2005
Extract It is especially noteworthy that, in an essay about the exercise of freedom of conscience by health care workers, Professor R. Alta Charo has virtually nothing to say about freedom or conscience (The Celestial Fire of Conscience- Refusing to Deliver Medical Care. N Eng J Med 352:24, June 16, 2005). “Conscience clauses,” yes: conscientious objection, to be sure: and she mentions acts of conscience and the right of conscience. But nothing about freedom, and, on the subject of conscience itself, the most she can muster is, “Conscience is a tricky business.”