Larry Worthen is executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, an organization that has stepped up to try to protect the conscience rights of Canadian doctors who have religious objections to physician-assisted suicide. He spoke with Faith Today about what we need to know on this issue, what we can do and why it matters so much.
Faith Today: It has been legal since June for patients to request physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada. The legislation doesn’t require physicians or nurses to provide physician-assisted death. But when it comes to conscience protection for doctors who do not want to refer patients for physician-assisted death, the regulations differ from province to province. Can you explain to our readers what you are doing on these issues?
Larry Worthen: There are two tracks to this. We are doing two things at the same time. We’ve formed The Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience. That is our advocacy track. We have ten members, including the EFC, the Salvation Army and others. We’re currently in the process of meeting with Ontario MPPs. Physicians themselves are meeting with MPPs to talk about the dilemma they are in with the requirement that they must refer.
Our doctors are being forced to choose between their career and their conscience. They are unable to refer, yet the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) is requiring that, which means that if any of them were to get a complaint from a patient because of this, they could be investigated and disciplined for refusal to comply.
We’re meeting with MPPs from all three parties. We’ve found support within all major parties, particularly the Conservatives and the NDP, and also some individual support from Liberal MPPs. We want the provincial Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to create an alternative access route so these doctors won’t be penalized because of their faith.
All that is happening at the same time that three of the partners, along with five Ontario doctors, have taken the CPSO to court. Four of those doctors are Evangelicals, one is Catholic. They are fighting this policy relating to euthanasia and abortion. We have a court date set for the first week of February.
FT: Why should people who live outside Ontario pay attention?
LW: We need to know that Ontario and possibly Quebec are the only two provinces that require effective referral. No other jurisdiction in the world where euthanasia is legal requires effective referral.
People have asked me why I think the college is requiring it. I’m not sure because they’ve never told us. Now we have ethicists from Queen’s University arguing that students who have conscientious objections should not be accepted into medical school, as if there should be an ethics test before people are accepted. It is blatant discrimination against people because of their religious beliefs.
We met with an MPP last week who said he agreed with that idea. This is a very common idea within the government, within the college certainly, that conscientious objections are not to be supported and that people who have these objections need to be weeded out from the profession of medicine.
FT: This is all sounding eerily familiar to the Trinity Western University law school case.
LW: I think there are parallels with TWU, but in this case we have a situation where existing medical practitioners will have to either change their practice or leave medicine entirely. We have practising physicians who will have to stop. It will affect other professionals as well, like pharmacists, nurses, other medical practitioners.
I don’t think the average person realizes governments are making decisions that actively discriminate against people for their faith.
FT: Why should that average person be concerned?
LW: Many people will consider assisted suicide because of loneliness, isolation, difficulties dealing with a disability, difficulties dealing with mental health issues. When you experience those things, you’re going to want to have a physician who is prepared to work hard to help you find alternatives. It’s a great benefit to Christians to be able to go to a doctor who understands your lifestyle and supports it, as opposed to challenges it.
Many of us have family members interested in being physicians, and that whole line of work could be closed off to people of faith if we keep moving in this direction.
FT: Do you think it is possible that we will actually be in a situation where a Christian who objects to assisted suicide, and doesn’t want to actively refer a patient to a doctor who does, will not be allowed to be a doctor?
LW: It’s very likely. Because the litmus test will be referral. If our challenge doesn’t succeed, it is possible that will screen out Roman Catholics, evangelical and Orthodox Jewish doctors from the practice of medicine.
Medical assistance in dying affects all streams of medicine. There is no way of ensuring physicians in all areas won’t receive that request. If they can’t comply with the policy, they won’t be able to practise medicine. It is not just one isolated ethicist suggesting that doctors with conscience objections should not be allowed into medical school.
This has been the challenge we’ve been facing. And the average churchgoer in Canada cannot believe this is happening. I grew up with the idea we had a Christian country. It has taken us years to realize that no, we don’t. Our perspective is we are living in a pluralistic society where all backgrounds are welcome, and it is inclusive. But there is a secular view of society where people of faith are excluded.
All Christians in Canada should be very concerned about this and fight it. What we are facing now with physicians could be a precipitating incident that draws attention to this, and makes Christians in Canada aware of how far we have gone down this secular slope.
FT: Larry, is this all inevitable?
LW: No. It’s only inevitable if we don’t do anything. As we talk to MPPs, most aren’t even aware this is happening. If we can mobilize Christians in Ontario to contact the government, we’d be effective in getting a change in policy.
Often we are our own worst enemies because we don’t do anything.
FT: What is the best way for us to do that right now?
LW: Everyone, all of your readers, need to go on the Canadians for Conscience website (www.CanadiansForConscience.ca) and send a letter to their representative. It’s easy. You can send letters directly to ministers of health in each of the provinces. Reaffirm the importance of conscience protection for Christian doctors and doctors of other faiths. You can send letters to your MPPs. You can call them. We have a window of a couple of months for us to get the word out. Of course, people can share the links on social media, and of course, we are appealing for financial help for this case.
FT: What exactly is the problem with active referral?
LW: Our doctors feel responsible for their patients and for where they send them. A referral is a thoughtful act. It is an act based on the thought, "I’m sending you to another physician to help you." It is a recommendation that you need that help and need it from that person. So the sending doctor is complicit. You are aiding and abetting the actual death of the patient.
If you had conscience objection status, and there was a draft in your country, and the country said you don’t have to go to war and kill someone yourself, but you do have to work in a factory and build the bombs that will kill them, that would not be conscience protection. The referral is intimately connected to the act that follows.
There are alternative ways that exist in other countries and provinces, where patients can have access to what they cawant without having to go through their family doctors. It’s possible to have a system where both a patient’s needs can be met and a doctor’s conscience protected.
I think that we are at a crisis point. The future of Christian health care and medical care is being challenged. Even more than that, our ability to be able to live out our faith and be explicit about our faith in our work is being challenged. We need the support of the Christian community to turn it around.
FT: Thank you, Larry.