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St. Martha’s Hospital remains firm on policy against medically-assisted dying

In June 2016, the federal government legalized medically-assisted dying. Thousands have chosen to use it to end their lives. But in some hospitals, access is still limited, or even non-existent. As Ross Lord explains, that double-standard has put pressure on government health agencies to allow the practice or face court action.

A Nova Scotia Catholic congregation, thrust into a controversy about the right to die, is confident its policy will endure.

The Sisters of St. Martha has an agreement with the Nova Scotia government, forbidding medical assistance in dying, at St. Martha’s Hospital in Antigonish, N.S.

“It is named in the agreement that we don’t do a suicide,” says Congregation leader, Sister Brendalee Boisvert.

“We believe in protecting life until the end.”

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Almost three years after the federal government legalized medically-assisted dying, critics say it’s time for the St.Martha’s exemption to end.

“The bottom line is that a faith-based institution should not be allowed to impose its’ faith, its values, on the citizens of a community who may not share them,” said Jocelyn Downie, a professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University who specializes in health law.

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St. Martha’s is far from alone. More than 100 Catholic hospitals and nursing homes across Canada also forbid medically-assisted dying, including 17 sites operated by Covenant Health in Alberta.

When Bob Hergott’s ALS paralyzed him, he was unable to access assisted dying at a Covenant hospital in Edmonton, or even sign a request form to have the procedure done elsewhere.

His best friend, Verna Young, says Hergott was forced to leave hospital property in his wheelchair.

“My daughter and I, we met him the day he decided to sign the forms,” said Young. “We met him out across the street, in a bus shelter. It was pouring rain.”

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WATCH: Despite Halifax woman’s deathbed plea, Ottawa remains steadfast on assisted dying rules

Despite Halifax woman’s deathbed plea, Ottawa remains steadfast on assisted dying rules
Despite Halifax woman’s deathbed plea, Ottawa remains steadfast on assisted dying rules

To Young, it was a heart-breaking episode.

“It’s just sort of pathetic,” she said.

Covenant has since changed its policy, so assessments can be done on site. But medically-assisted dying is still banned.

The longer that perceived double standard continues, advocates say, the more likely it becomes that the battleground will move — from a hospital room to the courtroom.

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“A court challenge is certainly one of the options that is being looked at,” says Jim Cowan of the advocacy group Dying With Dignity, which wants provincial health agencies to end the Catholic hospital exemptions.

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The Nova Scotia Health Authority’s interim vice-president of medicine, Dr. Mark Taylor, says the province is considering a change, with the threat of a possible Charter challenge looming.

“That has led to considerable discussion within the NSHA with regard to how to manage that particular issue,” said Taylor.

Dr. Taylor expects the Nova Scotia policy will be released in coming weeks.

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