The following blog was co-written with me by Dr. Leonie Herx, Division Chair and Associate Professor of Medicine at Queen’s University and Past- President of the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians and Dr. Ramona Coelho, a family physician who provides care to a large number of marginalized patients. A version of this opinion piece initially ran in the London Free Press on Saturday December 5, 2020.
As the COVID-19 pandemic dominates the political agenda and strains the country’s health-care systems, the federal Liberals are intent on passing Bill C-7, which proposes to expand medical assistance in dying (MAiD) to those who are not dying. Proponents of the bill state that it allows choice and dignity for those with chronic illness. However, the bill fails to provide them with the dignity and humanity of requiring them to have good care or access to supports.
As physicians, we witness the struggles that confront our patients and their loved ones every day. Those living on the margins and with disabilities face significant barriers to care though systemic discrimination (ableism) that can make it harder to live a healthy, fulfilling life in community. As doctors we should be instilling hope, supporting resilience and using our expertise to find creative solutions to address health and wellbeing. Instead, we now will be required to suggest assisted suicide as an option.
Spring Hawes, a lady who has a spinal cord injury for 15 years publicly stated,
“As disabled people, we are conditioned to view ourselves as burdensome. We are taught to apologize for our existence, and to be grateful for the tolerance of those around us. We are often shown that our lives are worth less than nondisabled lives. Our lives and our survival depend on our agreeableness.”
A choice to die isn’t a free choice when life depends on good behaviours and compliance to societal norms. Sadly, the medical community can be complicit in this messaging.
Gabrielle Peters, a brilliant writer, who has struggled with poverty since her disability, has shared that a healthcare professional sat at her bedside and urged her to consider death. This was just after Gabrielle’s partner announced he was leaving her because she was too much of a burden and she no longer fit into the life he wanted.
Doctors can pressure someone to die as in Gabrielle’s situation but also more subtly can confirm a patient’s fears that her life is not worth living and MAiD would indeed be a good medical choice.
Day after day, we participate in a healthcare system and a social support system that does not come close to meeting the basic needs of our most vulnerable patients. However, our role as physicians should always be to first advocate that our patients access all reasonable supports for a meaningful life with no suffering. But alas, Canada does not seem to prioritize health care and supports for all, and soon, that lack of support will be pitted against an option to access death in 90 days.
Patients entrust doctors to make ethical decisions every day regarding their care and to make recommendations that are always aimed at promoting health and healing. The core role of medicine is to be restorative, not destructive. Advocating for our patient’s health and wellbeing, is a solemn oath we took.
As physicians we help our patients do many things in the context of a trusting, shared, decision making process. Doctors encourage healthy habits. We refuse to prescribe antibiotics when patients have a viral infection, or opioids on demand. We pull a driver’s license when we have concerns for patient safety and the public good. We refuse to write mask exemptions without good reason. We serve both patient and the common good.
All of this requires courage to not betray the trust society and the patient has bestowed on our profession. Society’s belief in the inherent virtue and ethics of the profession has been the necessary basis of the physician-patient trust. Would you trust your doctor if you thought they didn’t care about your safety and well-being?
While we recognize patients have the right to ask for MAiD, physicians must not be forced to suggest or forced to facilitate this, when reasonable options for living with dignity exist. We must continue to offer our patients what is good and practice medicine with integrity.
As Dr. Thomas Fung, Physician Lead for Siksika Nation stated,
“Assisted death should be an option of last resort, and not the path of least resistance for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Conscience protection is needed in this bill, as no one should be forced to participate in the intentional death of another person against their good will.”
One of the most important foundations of our Canadian identity is that we are a caring, compassionate country. We are proud of our universal healthcare mandate, and we place a high premium on being inclusive and tolerant while working hard toward the accommodation and integration of marginalized and vulnerable members of our community. And yet, if Bill C7 is allowed to stand without amendments, we will be in serious danger of losing this fundamental element of our Canadian identity.