Cory Peel is a GP-Anesthesiologist who locums throughout British Columbia, Alberta and the Yukon
A couple of months ago I read Mike Hager’s article in the Globe and Mail about Dr. Reggler’s tribulations at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Comox, BC, and I was overcome by a realization that, despite having been a practicing Family Physician for 7 years, I had culpably little understanding of the prejudicial impact of faith-based hospitals in determining patient access to care.
The article detailed the refusal of the “Catholic hospital” in Comox to provide medical aid in dying to its patients despite having a staff physician willing and able to do so, thereby forcing them to be transferred elsewhere. That such a policy could exist stunned me. It is the work of “the bishop [a.k.a. the Diocese of Victoria] and the hospital board,” with the board’s CEO maintaining that “minimizing patient discomfort and pain is always the highest priority,” which seems to me to fly in the face of logic.
It is not, however, an isolated example. Canada contains many hospitals whose delivery of healthcare to its patients is directed by Church doctrine.
Allow that to rest for just a moment at the centre of your awareness. It’s not that the historical religious missionaries - in the case of Comox’s hospital, the Sisters of St. Joseph - don’t deserve credit for, in the medical sense, advancing the line of human prosperity and putting to good use some of the overflow of the largest coffers the world has known. They do. But historical credit is all they are due.
Modern medicine’s use of the scientific method as a route of inquiry has long surpassed in utility: folk tales, superstition, revelation, and decree. In my view, human behaviour in the medical field should bear no more heed to a Christian edict than it should the anguished bottom-line ravings of a secular economist. I hope the reader won’t interpret the latter clause as evidence of a naïve rosiness that fiscal reality shouldn’t determine how we treat illness – it must. What I’m suggesting is that, to the extent humanly possible, the provision of medical services in this country should hold as its lone guiding principle that which it purports to: the alleviation, and failing that, the mitigation, of the totality of human suffering.
The Catholic Church’s directive regarding medical aid in dying would seem to me to fail impressively when it insists that a terminally ill patient, for whom any movement is burdensome mentally and often physically, go from hospital bed to stretcher to jostling ambulance ride and to, perhaps, unfamiliar other hospital. No intellectual gymnastics can make me regard this as anything other than a purposeful and unnecessary infliction of pain; worse onto those at the end of their life; worse still under the pretense of sanctimony. Any doctrinal justification of such injustice should be met with the same reproach and condemnation that decry any other religiously inspired torture, in my view.
Publicly provided medical care, the wellspring of Canadian pride and recognized ideal of civilized nations, has no business parsing harm in faith-specific terms. It seems clear to me that public health care institutions have no business mandating traditions or posturings meant to appease any particular version of the afterlife, much less at the expense of patient autonomy and legally entitled treatment, and that if Catholic hospitals want the right to pick and choose what services they provide there is only one conscionable and acceptable way to proceed: they must join the lobby in pursuit of a two-tiered Canadian health delivery system, one that might allow them to withhold care by scripture, offer that version of care to the inclined, and most importantly, do so unsupported by a single publicly-supplied dollar. This is the only possible milieu in which medical decisions based on providers’ faith alone could rationally be considered.
What should the great numbers of people in places like Comox do, where their only community hospital is held hostage by a board and CEO that replace their legal rights with propitiations to a god that they may not even believe in? What ought we to say to religious ideologues who take public, non-denominational dollars and use them to run their very denominational institutions?
In reply, I offer that the present reality of some Canadian hospitals subjecting our list of medical rights to their religious scissors cannot be tolerated, and the realization that it is occurring should evoke disgust and rage in patients, lawmakers and physicians alike. There are, of course, places where religious doctrine is tolerable, but our hospitals are certainly not among them.