Dr. David Amies: On 'institutional conscience,' Part 2

In a follow-up post to his recent column on balancing the convictions of faith-based healthcare institutions and the rights of their patients, Dr. David Amies argues that the "bald proscriptions" of religious figures who oppose assisted dying have declining relevance in our modern society.

My most recent posting on this blog concerning "institutional conscience,” especially concerning hospitals run by the Roman Catholic Church, has provoked a good deal of comment, much of which has been indignant about what is seen as the Church's intransigence. The common argument has been how dare the Church accept public money to run its institutions and yet to threaten to flout law on assisted dying. I must say that I am sympathetic to the views of these commentators.

It occurs to me that officials, who run religious organizations, seem to hold that their ideas about public morality and behaviour apply universally. It is easy to see how this misapprehension has arisen. For centuries past, what churches had to say was accepted without question. Lately, this has proved to be no longer the case. The public are no longer so unquestioning and compliant. As well, the Christian faithful, in a country like Canada, are aging and declining both in influence and number.

A 'black and white' view of morals and ethics

The Roman Catholic bishops of Alberta and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto have recently stated that legislation permitting physician-assisted dying is flat out immoral: thou shalt not kill! In my view, clerics espouse a black-and-white and un-nuanced view of morals and ethics. Anyone who has spent 15 minutes in a first year university course on the subjects should appreciate that matters are really not quite so simple. Take for example the bald proscription against killing and then ask why the Church so enthusiastically supported the Crusades and the Inquisition and recently, the lies it spread in East Africa about the inefficacy of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Cardinal Alphonso Lopez Trujillo was instrumental in flying that kite, which very likely led to the deaths and suffering of countless East African women. Thou shalt not kill?

This is no place for a detailed and probably tedious disquisition on church teachings and the Ten Commandments other than to point out that stealing a potential murderer’s gun or to deliberately mislead someone bent on killing your mother, thereby flouting other commandments, might have beneficial outcomes.

To return then to the likely problems that  will ensue after physician-assisted dying becomes legal in Canada and certain institutions refuse to allow it on their premises, what is the best way out? Pointing out to the managers of such institutions that the majority of their funds come from the public purse, will probably cut no ice. Bellicose threats about the impropriety of not obeying the law of the land, are likely also, to be ineffective and to lead to long and protracted court cases.

The road to acceptance

In my previous article, I offered the means whereby religious consciences could be salved and dying patients granted their wishes. I maintain that my idea has merit and is worth exploring and fleshing out. The Church, which has been under attack in recent years for financial improprieties as well as the clerical child sexual abuse scandal, is hardly likely to want to attract more negative publicity by callously evicting very sick patients from its institutions simply because it wishes to deny them their rights to end their lives. One can well imagine what a splash such incidents would cause on the six o'clock evening news. The splash will be even greater in situations in which the institution concerned was the only one in town, as would be the case in Comox, B.C., for example.

As time passes the influence wielded by religious organizations in Canada will steadily decline as is, and has been the case, in most other parts of the Western world. The problem therefore, is to find some reasonable accommodation between the state and the majority of the population and the views of the church hierarchy. The latter will not wish to make fools of themselves by behaving unmercifully to the very sick, along with the unfavourable publicity that would attract. Insisting on transfers of such patients would also be very costly and churches are usually very tender where their pockets are concerned. So, there are levers and wise politicians ought to know how to operate them such that honour satisfied on all sides.

Dr. David Amies is a retired doctor in Lethbridge, Alta., and a member of DWD Canada's Physicians Advisory Council.

(Header photo credit: Jmabel/Wikimedia)

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