Physicians fear abuse over pro-life viewpoints in a pro-euthanasia environment
By Michael Swan
Photo caption: Oncologist Dr. Ellen Warner.
Doctors are being bullied, silenced, and coerced in a pro-euthanasia environment that is forcing those who object to medically assisted suicide to provide an effective referral for patients who wish to die, provincial legislators were told during hearings into Bill-84.
Oncologist Dr. Ellen Warner told an all-party committee physicians at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital are “being bullied” and are experiencing a “horrendous stress level.”
She described colleagues who oppose assisted suicide speaking in code and using alternative email addresses to discuss doctor-assisted suicide.
“Physicians are afraid they will lose their jobs if they say anything,” Warner said. “We feel sometimes like we’re in some sort of dystopian novel.”
NDP health critic France Gélinas said she was “horrified” by Warner’s testimony.
A majority of witnesses appearing before the March 23 hearings of the Finance and Economic Affairs Committee want conscience protection for physicians and other health-care workers written into the new law.
Hamilton Dr. Jane Dobson held back tears as she described the pressure she’s faced since the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario ruled doctors with a moral, ethical or religious objection to assisted suicide must nevertheless provide an “effective referral” for the procedure.
“If I don’t comply, I face fines and the possible suspension of my licence,” Dobson said.
Dobson described how her own brother became suicidal when, at age 50, he discovered his tonsillar cancer had spread to his brain.
Then “he was admitted to the psychiatric ward for therapy. His mood rebounded and he spent the next months of his life receiving care, first at home and then in hospice, where he was able to reconnect and reconcile with old friends and family members and he spent meaningful time with his two young sons and his wife,” Dobson said. “He was truly grateful for the extra time.”
University of Toronto professor and St. Michael’s Hospital endocrinologist Dr. Maria Wolfs said medical schools are facing pressure to weed out students who might object to assisted suicide.
“If conscience protection is not included in Bill-84, future physician training in Ontario may be at risk,” Wolfs said.
The University of Toronto School of Medicine encourages doctors in training to act on their consciences and to form an ethical foundation for their future practice, but the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s duty-to-refer policy is undermining student training, said Wolfs.
“Those who are objecting conscientiously are worried they might not be able to practise ... in areas such as palliative care, critical care, and oncology,” or in remote locations where effective referral is not an option.
Representing B’Nai Brith Canada, psychiatrist Dr. Janice Halpern said the College of Physicians and Surgeons’ policy is at odds with the subtleties of a psychiatric doctor-patient relationship. She questioned how long a psychiatrist can work with a patient “on finding their will to live again” before referring that patient for assisted suicide.