Covenant Health freed from task of killing patients

Dr. Mary Ellen Haggerty

Dr. Mary Ellen Haggerty

June 13, 2016

EDMONTON - Alberta Catholic institutions and physicians are determined not to take part in assisting their patients in dying. And it seems they will not have to.

The province has said no doctor will be forced to participate in the practice against their will.

However, as Alberta Health spokesperson Timothy Wilson put it, "Any medical professional who conscientiously objects to medical assistance in dying will be obligated to transfer care to Alberta Health Services, regardless of what facility they work in.

"There is no exemption of any institutions," Wilson said in a June 1 email. Nevertheless, Covenant Health, the Catholic institution that runs hospitals and continuing-care facilities across the province, seems to have gotten just that.

Recently, the province said patients at hospitals and continuing-care facilities run by Covenant Health will be transferred to other Alberta health care facilities if they seek physician-assisted suicide.

"We (at Covenant Health) have maintained that as an organization we expect to honour our mission and ethics and abide by our Catholic identity and not be involved with medical assistance in dying," explained Gordon Self, Covenant's vice-president of mission ethics and spirituality.

"Covenant Health will not be involved with the intentional termination of patients' lives.

"That's just not in keeping with our tradition. (However), we are not going to stop a person who may want access to that. We never stopped people before, but we are not going to be involved with that."

While Covenant Health will not refer patients to institutions that provide medically assisted suicide, it will connect them with the body that will coordinate the procedure.

AHS is looking at establishing a resource team that would connect people to the provider of medical assistance in dying. The team will initially provide information about medically assisted suicide and other options.

"This would be a body that we would be able to interact with, who would be distinct and separate from the actual provider of medical assistance in dying," explained Self.

Covenant Health will provide counselling as well as emotional and spiritual support to patients who express a desire to die with the help of a doctor, asking them to consider palliative and hospice care.

"Now if a patient insists on getting legal access to medical assistance in dying, we will explain that we don't do that, and if they want more information, we'll connect them to that resource team that will be available in the community," Self said.

"If the patient then wants to connect with that resource team and pursue that even further, then that resource team would sort of assume that responsibility and start moving to a more formal assessment but we wouldn't be involved with that at all."


Dr. Mary Ellen Haggerty, a medical doctor who is president of Edmonton's St. Luke's Catholic Physicians' Guild, said physicians want protection for conscience rights across the country. Physician guilds across Canada are pressuring the Senate to ensure conscience rights are included in the national law.

Haggerty works in an Edmonton clinic and expects she will be approached by patients who want assistance in dying.

"Every doctor is going to be faced with this question," she said. "We all see people that feel pretty dejected about life for one reason or another."

Haggerty said it is not her job to give people access to assisted suicide.


"The way I look at it is we can give our patients information. First we have to discuss with them why they are doing this, but we don't withhold information.

"If they want to do that then we can give them some information about where they can go but I don't think we necessarily have to make a referral," she said.

"It is not our job to see that people can get access to this. If the government wants it available then they should provide it. They shouldn't be counting on physicians to inform that access."

St. Luke's Physicians' Guild supports what the bishops have said about assisted dying, Haggarty pointed out. "We don't think (medically assisted dying) is right. We respect everybody's life as dignified, no matter what state they are in."