Ontario privacy watchdog criticizes secrecy about facilities that provide assisted dying

Ontario's privacy commissioner says patients may want to know which facilities provide medically assisted deaths when choosing where to access health care. File Photo / Getty Images

TORONTO – Ontario’s privacy commissioner is calling on the provincial government to make information identifying publicly funded facilities that provide medically assisted deaths available to members of the public who request it under the freedom-of-information system.

Brian Beamish says legislation passed this spring shields hospitals, long-term care homes and hospices from Ontario’s freedom-of-information law, allowing them to refuse to disclose any information that would reveal whether or not they grant patients’ requests for medical assistance in dying.

While the government says that was done to protect the safety of clinicians in those facilities, Beamish says there’s no proof opponents of assisted dying would pose any threat to them if the facilities were identified.

The new legislation also allows the government and facilities to choose not to disclose which individual physicians perform medically assisted dying. Beamish is not calling for that to be changed, but he says protecting facilities as a whole goes too far.

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Ontario medical facilities are not required to provide medical assistance in dying and some, particularly religious institutions, have decided not to do so on conscience grounds.

Beamish says patients may want information about facilities that do and do not provide the service when choosing where to access medical care. He says that information is also important to the broader civic debate about the assisted death.

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“We believe that excluding information that could identify facilities providing such services is inconsistent with Ontario’s access and privacy laws and would hinder the transparency and accountability of Ontario’s health system,” Beamish wrote in his annual report, released this week.

The government has no plans to change the law on the matter, according to a spokeswoman in the health minister’s office, who said the decision to shield medical facilities under freedom-of-information laws was made after clinicians expressed “concerns about the potential consequences of participating in medical assistance in dying.”

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Beamish said, however, that no other jurisdictions with legal assisted death have experienced violence or threats because of it, and the government has offered no proof that would occur in Ontario.

Nor should the government withhold information in order to “stifle legitimate and peaceful protest,” he wrote.

“The right to protest and express criticism of government decisions is an integral component of any democracy and is protected by … the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees everyone freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

Beamish’s criticism comes as the provincial government has promised to set up safe access zones around abortion clinics, where protesting is banned, to protect the people who provide abortions and those who seek them.

Beamish noted the freedom-of-information law also provides a shield for information about abortions, which the government has relied on to decline to release information that would present no safety risk, such as general statistics on abortions in Ontario.

In a decision earlier this year, a court ordered the government to rewrite the abortion provision in the freedom-of-information law, after an anti-abortion group argued it was too broad.

A spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General declined to say how the government will respond as it still has time to appeal. Meanwhile, the law preventing protests around abortion clinics will be introduced in the fall, Andrew Rudyk said.


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