New questions about end of life arise as doctor assisted dying requests grow

There have been 62 deaths attributed to doctor assisted suicide since legislation was enacted, said the B.C. Coroners' office



End of life decisions and their repercussions have become an increasingly hot topic since June 27, when legislation to allow the practice came to pass.

About 200 Canadians have received help dying  since legislation authorizing medically assisted suicide came into force in June.

In B.C., there have been 62 deaths attributed to doctor assisted suicide since implementation, Barb McLintock, from the B.C. Coroners’ office, said Tuesday. As of Thursday, that number grew to 66. An additional 87 people have taken advantage of the law in Ontario, while the total in Alberta has tracked at least 23 deaths, Manitoba has had 12, while Saskatchewan has had fewer than five cases. Figures from elsewhere were not immediately available.

With provinces dealing with an increased number of physician assisted deaths,  there are new questions arising in both medical and ethical realms.

The Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories gained a lot of attention with a letter to its  priests made public at the end of September, indicating they should refuse funeral rites in doctor assisted deaths because suicide is considered a grave sin.

That message, explained John Corriveau, the  bishop for the Diocese of Nelson and the Okanagan, has been over-simplified and B.C. priests will offer funeral rites when the conditions are right.

“If the termination of your life is a denial of faith in a God that gave us life, then of course it’s not appropriate to have funeral in church,” said Corriveau, from his Kelowna office.

“But we don’t apply a moral conclusion to the person … we  see if the conditions are there to look beyond that.”

As an example, he said if he had someone in his congregation who stood up and said , “I’m 75 years old and I’m going to decide what I do with my life —I’m going to pop a pill and be done,” there would be issues.

“If you want to celebrate ‘I’m doing it my way’ then maybe this isn’t the best place for you,” he said.

“But there can be another case of somebody who has no family around them, and you might say they made a free choice.”

It’s not free in the same way, he said. They aren’t rejecting biblical teachings, they’re responding to pain and isolation.

“There’s room for mercy in all these things, and we are going to bend over backwards to help our people,” he said.

Still, however, Corriveau advocates for palliative care over doctor assisted death, which echoes what the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada has said.

“We’re called to be merciful. Our god is a merciful god. Ours is also a face of mercy,” he said.

“Palliative care goes beyond what the government has to offer,” he said.

“I’d like to issue a challenge to the Catholic community that we surround our elderly and sick with tenderness  and care … when that’s the case fewer people will look for assisted defying.”

He added that he doesn’t like the legislation that made physician assisted deaths legal since June 27.

It isn’t just members of the Catholic church struggling with the new legislation.

This week, the Interior Health board had a meeting about assisted deaths, and it was clear there are those within the medical community who are also struggling with the changes.

“We’re looking at a culture change in medical care,” said Hundal.

“None of us graduated from medical school thinking we’d be providing this.”

But they are, and when he was in Kelowna Tuesday speaking with Interior Health board members on assisted dying protocols, he noted health practitioners through the region have been fielding an increasing number of inquiries.

Capacity to deal with all the requests is being highlighted as an issue. At the meeting on Tuesday there was also a call for emotional supports for health care providers who have to deal with the emotional toll of doctor assisted dying.