Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto and spokesman Larry Worthen before a parliamentary committee earlier this year. Worthen is a spokesman for the five doctors and three groups that have co-launched legal action against College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario over assisted suicide policy. Canadian Catholic News file photo

Ontario's bishops rally behind doctors fighting assisted suicide policy

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  • October 18, 2016

OTTAWA – Ontario's bishops are putting their weight behind doctors who are going to court to defend their religious and conscience rights to refuse to refer patients for assisted suicide.

"A lot of our people would be very upset to learn doctors were being forced to act against their conscience," said Bishop Ronald Fabbro of London, president of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario.

Particularly disconcerting, said a spokesman for five doctors involved in a legal challenge against the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), is the "intimidating" tone of proceedings which threaten to make religious belief an issue.

“The College has been very aggressive in the way it is handling this case,” said Larry Worthen, spokesman for the five doctors and three groups which co-launched the legal action.

“I think it’s extremely intimidating,” Worthen said. “[The doctors] are being cross-examined by their regulator and, not only that, they are being cross examined about their religious beliefs.

“We all have a right to our religious beliefs. How can they be cross examined about why their religious beliefs make them unable to refer for procedures that are basically morally wrong?”

Albertos Polizogopoulos, a constitutional lawyer who is acting on behalf of the parties in the lawsuit, is surprised the College intends to cross examine the doctors. Four of the five doctors are evangelical Christians; one is Catholic, he said.

“This whole case turns on the religious beliefs of the applicants, so it makes sense, but I have never heard anyone, including the College, challenge the sincerity of the doctors’ beliefs,” he said.

The doctors and the three organizations — the Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, and Canadian Physicians for Life — are facing soaring legal costs in their challenge against a College policy that requires doctors who refuse to participate in assisted suicide and abortion to refer those patients to other doctors.

“In my view, it’s the future of Catholic healthcare that’s at stake,” Worthen said. “No other jurisdiction outside of Canada where assisted suicide is legal requires referral.”

Many doctors believe offering referrals in such cases is the moral equivalent of performing the act itself. But refusing to comply on conscience or religious grounds could result in the College revoking a doctor's medical license, according to College policy.

The legal challenge is based on provisions in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that provide guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

The Attorney General of Ontario has intervened in support of the College. A spokesman for the Attorney General's office said in an email that the College's position on referrals strikes "a reasonable balance between the sincerely held religious beliefs of objecting physicians and the important state interest in ensuring vulnerable patients are able to access legally available medical procedures."

Worthen said the Coalition approached the College and the Government of Ontario to “ask for a workaround or an accommodation” so patients could have other ways of accessing assisted suicide. They did not even get a meeting.

The Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience is a new national organization that comprises the three groups involved in the lawsuit, plus the Archdioceses of Toronto and Vancouver, the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

The group has issued an appeal for funds and for political action on behalf of the litigants. Ontario's bishops agreed at their annual plenary earlier this month to support the Coalition and make conscience protection a "top priority," said Fabbro.

"This is an urgent matter and our people have to see the importance of this particular issue now," Fabbro said. "I would say it was the top priority of our plenary assembly. The bishops really want (to show) their strong support to these efforts."

The bishops' primary goal will be to build awareness in parishes about the threat to conscience rights for not only health-care providers but also Catholic hospitals, which must be allowed to "continue to operate according to their mission as Catholic hospitals without threats of defunding," Fabbro said. The bishops will also become active in promoting the expansion of palliative care.

"I think it is very much linked to the issue," said Fabbro. "If it is not available, there will be requests for assisted-suicide."

The doctors and the three groups have already spent $75,000 in legal costs and need to raise an additional $55,000, Worthen said.

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