Catholic bishops, Christian pastors, Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis were among the religious leaders who all came together at the Saskatchewan Legislature on Wednesday to raise concerns about federal assisted death legislation.
Reverend Robert Hardwick is a bishop for the Anglican Diocese of Qu’Appelle and was part of the multi-faith delegation who met with the health minister at the legislature on Tuesday. Part of the joint statement issued by the delegation was to call for an action plan to improve access to palliative and hospice care for all residents of Saskatchewan.
“It’s not a level playing field, I think over 90 per cent of people in Canada approve of hospice and palliative care, but only 16 to 30 per cent of people have access to it and the further north we get in Saskatchewan that very much is true, but also in our rural communities,” Hardwick commented.
He noted that family doctors should have more resources and access to expertise in the field of pain management for prescribing drugs to help people who are suffering at the end of their lives. He wishes the palliative care issue had been addressed before the federal government passed the assisted death law.
“More should have been done in the area of palliative care to make sure that that was in a much better state than it is at the moment,” Hardwick said. “We are playing catch up in a lot of respects of this issue, but palliative care, good drug management – it needs to improve.”
Major Mike Hoeft is the area commander for the Salvation Army in Saskatchewan which runs a hospice home in Regina. He said the Salvation Army supports the push to expand palliative care services across the province, noting that the 10-bed care home they run in Regina always has a waiting list.
“This is a very valuable thing for people who are at the end of their life, and we want to encourage the government to explore options and ways in which people can access those services not only in the major cities, but also all through the rural communities of Saskatchewan as well.
He said the group wants to make sure that when people make those tough choices near the end of their lives, they should have ready access to palliative care as an option.
The joint statement signed by religious leaders across the province is also calling for the freedom of conscience for individual health care providers and to expand that right to institutions that may be run by faith-based organizations. Although medical and hospice facilities are publicly funded, Hoeft pointed out that many are still run by faith-based organizations and they should also have the right to refuse to offer assisted death on the grounds of conscientious objection.
“We as organizations would then be placed in the position of determining whether we abide by a regulation or whether we abide by the conscience and collective voice of our denominations,” Hoeft said.
While technically the government could enforce these regulations, Hoeft pointed out that organizations like the Salvation Army may then have to make the choice of whether to shut down their hospice care homes.
Currently the legislation is clear that no individual doctor or health care provider will be forced to provide medically assisted death when it goes against their personal conscience or religious beliefs. However groups representing doctors including the Saskatchewan Medical Association and the College of Physicians and Surgeons have put out policy statements saying that doctors who refuse to offer the service must not abandon their patients and are therefore required to refer them to another practitioner who will.
A spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese also raised concerns about the requirement for a healthcare provider to make a referral, saying that action may go against the beliefs of an individual. As an alternative, they suggested that the province should make a list of physicians or healthcare providers who are willing to offer assisted death, so individuals can research the options for themselves.