Dying With Dignity Canada to defend patients’ rights in Ontario appeal case on assisted dying

Dying With Dignity Canada (DWDC) is returning to court this week to defend patients’ rights in Ontario.

The organization is an official intervenor in a case that will be heard by the Court of Appeal of Ontario on Monday and Tuesday. At stake is the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s (CPSO) policy of effective referral for assisted dying. Approved in 2016, the policy requires physicians who oppose assisted dying to refer patients who ask for it to a clinician or third-party agency that can handle the request.

The national charity dedicated to defending Canadians’ end-of-life rights, DWDC said the CPSO’s policy is essential to ensuring fair access to assisted dying in Ontario. “With every month that passes, we develop a deeper understanding of how an effective referral can mean the difference between a person realizing their right to a peaceful death and dying in a manner they desperately sought to avoid,” said DWDC CEO Shanaaz Gokool. “The CPSO’s policy acts as a critical backstop for vulnerable Ontarians who want to explore a full range of legal end-of-life options and may not be able to navigate the system on their own.”

A coalition of groups opposed to assisted dying, led by the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, is behind the court challenge against the effective referral rule. The policy, they have argued, infringes upon their Charter right to freedom of religion and thus is unconstitutional. However, in a decision announced in January 2018, a panel of judges on the Superior Court of Ontario ruled that the CPSO’s policy is justifiable under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In May, Ontario’s appeal court agreed to hear the case.

DWDC served as an intervenor in support of the CPSO at the Superior Court level, arguing that the effective referral rule is critical to upholding Ontarians’ right to access assisted dying, as well as their dignity and privacy rights. The organization will expand on these issues in its oral and written submissions in the appeal case, Gokool said.

“It is simply not enough for a clinician to hand their patient a piece of paper with a website or telephone number scrawled onto it, or to tell them politely to Google medical assistance in dying,” she said. “When denied an effective referral, Ontarians with resourceful, well-educated, supportive caregivers and family advocates often struggle to find the help they need. Now imagine the impacts for the most vulnerable person, whose access to care hinges on the cooperation of their clinicians, or who wishes to keep their request for assisted dying private, as is their right.”

Gokool thanked the CPSO Monday for its strong commitment to defending the rights and choices of vulnerable Ontarians. “The CPSO deserves enormous credit for implementing a policy that respects physicians’ freedom of conscience and safeguards Ontarians’ patient autonomy,” she said. “By striking this sensible balance and defending it in court, the CPSO has established Ontario as a national leader when it comes to protecting its residents’ end-of-life rights.”

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