Atheists need to speak up about assisted dying

What happens when religious believers want to infringe on the rights of patients and healthcare practitioners?

Right now, the answer is we don’t know - but it isn’t looking good.

In February of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously agreed to legalize physician assisted dying in Canada. Once their decision comes into effect next year, a competent adult who has a grievous and irremediable medication condition (from disease, illness or injury) and who is experiencing enduring suffering, will have the charter right to an assisted death.

No longer will someone need to endure unwanted suffering. No longer will doctors need to turn a deaf ear to patients pleas for release. No longer will individuals need to travel to distant countries to seek a peaceful death they can’t legally receive at home. What a victory for patients.

Or is it? 

It turns out that a Supreme Court victory might not be enough to give people access to assisted dying, at least not if certain religious believers in Canada get their way.

In Canada we have a number of publicly funded hospitals which are run by Catholic, Christian evangelical or other religious groups. For example, in Vancouver we have St. Paul’s, Holy Family and Mt. St. Joseph’s hospital. Even though the patients in these hospitals come from a variety of religious backgrounds – or have no religion at all, even though many of medical and other staff members are not Catholic, even though these hospitals are funded with tax payer dollars, these religiously-chartered hospitals, hospices and healthcare facilities are determined to block access to assisted dying.

It doesn’t matter that there is a patient who meets all the Supreme Court’s criteria pleading for a gentle death. It doesn’t matter that there is a compassionate doctor who is trained and willing to provide the assisted death. These hospitals believe they have the right to just say no. If these hospitals get their way, any physician who disobeys will lose their hospital privileges and possibly their livelihood.

And this isn’t restricted to just a few hospitals. Religious advocates are demanding that hospices, long-term care facilities and nursing homes can all decide that they too have a conscience and shouldn’t have to provide assisted dying.

In the next half year, governments and regulators will pass rules and regulations for assisted dying. Every day they are being bombarded by organizations from Christian hospices to Catholic doctors who are loudly protesting their rights to freedom of religion. That is, the freedom to use their religion to deny choice to their patients and residents.

Just the other day I was at a conference where three separate presenters all stated that institutions should not have to provide assisted dying. None of the other speakers argued. When I came back to the office I had an email from one of our chapters. They had set up a table at a health fair at a local hospital, but someone complained. They were told to leave.

Those of us who believe in the right of individuals to follow their consciences without religious interference need to speak up now. Once the rules and regulations are in place it will be much harder to change them. 

Dying With Dignity Canada is the national organization committed to implementing the Supreme Court’s decision and providing access to assisted dying for all eligible Canadians. But we can’t do it alone. Please join us in speaking up at this critical time. Get involved in our campaigns to protect the rights of patients to have care and the rights of physicians to practice without religiously imposed constraints. Donate to help us fund reasoned and rational responses to lawmakers and regulators. Find out more at our website at

Wanda Morris is the CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada

Read more about the BC Humanist Association's work on promoting choice in dying.

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