Manitoba assisted dying bill threatens to reinforce barriers to access

The Manitoba government’s new assisted dying bill threatens to create new barriers to access for residents looking to access their right to a peaceful death, Dying With Dignity Canada says.

On Tuesday, provincial Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen tabled a bill that proposes added protections for healthcare professionals who conscientiously object to MAID. If approved, Bill 34 would make it illegal for a professional regulatory body or healthcare institution to discipline a healthcare practitioner for refusing to participate in a medically assisted death.

The leading organization helping Canadians to avoid unwanted, unnecessary suffering at end of life, Dying With Dignity Canada (DWDC) is questioning why the protections proposed in Bill 34 don’t extend to clinicians who, as a matter of conscience, feel compelled to include MAID as part of their practice. A lack of sufficient protections could discourage more healthcare practitioners from participating, and in turn, limit the number of providers who are willing to assess patient requests.

“We’re perplexed that the health minister would put forward a bill on conscience protection that ignores the rights of a broad swath of the province’s healthcare community,” said DWDC CEO Shanaaz Gokool. “The one-sided nature of this bill raises questions about the Pallister government’s commitment to promoting fair, timely access to medical assistance in dying.”

To address these concerns, Gokool said, the government should adopt a stance on conscience protection that doesn’t privilege the rights of one group of health practitioners over another’s. “Doctors and nurses who are involved in the lawful provision of assisted dying should be afforded the same peace of mind as those who choose to opt out.”

Reinforcing existing barriers

DWDC is also raising concerns that proposals in the bill will ultimately reinforce existing barriers facing vulnerable Manitobans looking to exercise their right to MAID. Currently, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, which regulates the practice of medicine in the province, doesn’t require doctors who oppose MAID to refer patients who request to a willing provider or third-party agency. Objecting physicians may give the patient “timely access to a resource” such as a website or telephone referral service instead of coordinating a proper referral.

“This is an extremely poor standard of care, and it puts a heavy burden on dying Manitobans in their time of greatest vulnerability and need,” said Gokool. “Worse still, we fear that Bill 34 may communicate to physicians that they don’t even need to meet this unacceptably low bar.”

Requiring objecting physicians to provide an effective referral would protect Manitobans’ right to care while still respecting a doctor’s right to opt out of providing MAID, she added. “The Pallister government has an opportunity to adopt a compassionate approach to medical assistance in dying that puts patients first. We urge them to take it.”

To learn more about why doctors who oppose assisted death should have a duty to offer an effective referral to patients who request it, watch the video below.

(Header photo credit: Argylemuseum/WikiMedia Commons)

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