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Doctor affiliated with Catholic hospital speaks out against assisted-death ban

The Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa is shown on April 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A doctor affiliated with a Catholic hospital in a small British Columbia community says the facility's likely ban on assisted-dying is a violation of terminally ill patients' charter rights.

Dr. Jonathan Reggler said St. Joseph's General Hospital is the only hospital in the Comox Valley and as a Catholic facility it generally forbids doctors from helping patients die, although a formal policy has not yet been adopted.

Reggler said terminally ill patients in hospital who want a doctor's help to die will either be denied that right or have to be moved 50 kilometres to the nearest hospital in Campbell River.

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"It is totally wrong to take this very, very vulnerable, very, very sick population and start moving them around because the owner of a hospital doesn't want this charter right available," he said in a phone interview Monday.

The hospital did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down a ban on physician-assisted dying last year and the federal government has until June 6 to come up with replacement legislation.

Reggler is calling on the government to require all publicly funded hospitals and hospices, including faith-based organizations, to provide assisted-dying.

"This is something that the Supreme Court has said is a charter right for all Canadians, and hopefully the new federal government legislation is going to reflect that," he said. "It is not OK for a faith-based institution to say, 'It may be a charter right, but it's not available to Canadians here.' "

Reggler is a family doctor who has had privileges at St. Joseph's hospital since 2003. The 241-bed facility in Comox, B.C., serves the region of Comox Valley, with a population of about 65,000 people, on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

He said the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada has created a draft policy that he expects the hospital to adopt unless the legislation forces them to offer assisted-death.

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The draft policy, available online, says while hospital staff do not condone assisted-dying, they are to treat requests without judgment or coercion and to inform patients of palliative-care options. If the patient still wants to pursue assisted-dying, they can be transferred to another facility or discharged home.

The alliance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reggler said many people will choose to die at home, but there will be some who don't have that option and who will need to die in a care facility.

Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada, said there could be many communities across Canada where access to assisted-dying could be restricted because they are only served by faith-based hospitals.

Even in urban centres, faith-based hospitals tend to have the best palliative care wards, where people are likely to request assisted-dying, she said.

"Does religious belief trump someone's ability to access their charter right?" she asked. "We're talking about people who are desperately ill, who should be treated with as much compassion and dignity as possible."

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Providence Health Care, a Catholic health-care provider in Vancouver that operates 10 facilities, reminded its leadership team in an internal memo last month that physician-assisted dying violates the Catholic faith and until the law changes the service will not be provided.

The Archbishop of Toronto read a statement on assisted-dying at a mass Sunday that was presented via video or written statement to more than 200 Catholic churches across the city.

In the statement, Cardinal Thomas Collins called assisted-dying "destructive to our society" and said forcing Catholic doctors to refer patients to physicians who will perform assisted suicide is tantamount to religious discrimination.

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