Sacrificing hospitals, and freedom of conscience along with it

Published November 8, 2016, on the National Post

by Douglas Farrow and Dr. Will Johnston

In 1639 three nuns got off the boat from France and began to build Hotel Dieu in Montreal, the first hospital in Canada. Over time, some 275 hospitals were built across our country by self-sacrificing Catholics who faithfully served the sick and dying out of love and compassion, without regard to their patients’ faith or lack of faith. Succeeding generations of Canadians have been grateful for the spiritual and physical care they have received at such places.

St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver is one of those Catholic hospitals. In keeping with its faith-based principles, it respects the Catholic sense of human dignity — meaning, among other things, that it does not perform abortions or participate in assisted suicide or euthanasia.

Ellen Wiebe, a physician who is also an abortion and euthanasia activist, together with a lawyer, Richard Owens, recently criticized St. Paul’s because it would not euthanize one of its dying patients, Ian Shearer. Instead, Mr. Shearer was transferred to another institution, reportedly in terrible pain, where his request to die was granted.

They blame St. Paul’s for his suffering, without divulging that the pain resulted from his medication being reduced so he would be lucid enough to consent to his death. That (not to speak of botched transportation arrangements) accounts for his agony. Had he simply stayed at St. Paul’s, received uninterrupted palliative care and declined treatment for his sepsis and kidney failure, as is normal in his situation, he may have died undisturbed and relatively pain-free right there.

Wiebe is on record as saying that the euthanasia debate is not really about pain relief, which is generally very effective, but about autonomy, understood as the right to end one’s life when one sees fit.  She nevertheless attacks St. Paul’s for its putative lack of compassion and for its religious-based refusal to participate in euthanasia, something she and Owens insist every recipient of public funding must be prepared to do.

It is frankly absurd to attack St. Paul’s as lacking in compassion. But does the fact that it receives public funding mean that it should perform any and every procedure of which the law presently approves, even those that St. Paul’s considers gravely immoral?

Of course not. Some hospitals do not deliver babies or install new heart valves, for example; they leave that to institutions with the requisite expertise and equipment. Others, even others that are not religiously founded and governed, do not perform abortions or euthanasia – not because they are incapable of it, but rather because those who work there do not want to do it, usually for moral reasons. In neither case is there any reason to deny access to public funds.

All public money, after all, starts out as private money, collected in taxes from diverse people and businesses and distributed to places where it can be spent to good effect.  These places do not need to be all alike, any more than the people themselves need to be all alike. Diversity, within reasonable limits, is a good thing.

Wiebe and Owens, however, have decided that the diversity represented by Catholic hospitals, and by other institutions that object to euthanasia, is a bad thing. They accuse St. Paul’s of abusing its power by imposing “its metaphysical beliefs on those in its care.” But we should ask who is really imposing on whom.

Wiebe and Owens say they respect religion, yet religions such as Judaism and Catholicism, which regard life as a gift from God over which a person is steward, not master, they do not respect at all.  They are quite happy to apply coercive measures to those who hold such views, demanding that they either violate their consciences or withdraw from medicine altogether. Not to put too fine a point on it, they propose to use the public purse to back their own beliefs about human autonomy and the human fate, while denying to others the same privilege.

One may, with Wiebe and Owens, suppose that, if one is dead, one is at peace. That, however, is a very narrow – and, from a Catholic point of view, quite false – understanding of peace. It is hard to imagine why it should determine public policy, or why we should sacrifice Canada’s venerable Catholic hospitals on that altar. Particularly when the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion would have to be sacrificed along with those hospitals.

Postmedia News

Douglas Farrow is Professor of Christian Thought and holder of the Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies at McGill University, Montreal

Dr. Will Johnston is a family physician in Vancouver, B.C.