HALIFAX — A Catholic hospital in Nova Scotia must now offer patients access to medically assisted dying on site — a change advocates say should be noted by other provinces with faith-based hospitals.
St. Martha's Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., which was formerly run by the Sisters of St. Martha, had been exempt from Canada's medical assistance in dying legislation under a 1996 agreement signed with the Catholic order when the province took over control of the facility.
The agreement ensured the hospital's Catholic identity and values would be preserved and in accordance with Catholic principles expressly forbid "assisting suicide."
However, a policy change was quietly instituted by the Nova Scotia Health Authority last month that requires St. Martha's to now offer assisted dying.
"Assessments and the provision of (medical assistance in dying) will be available in a section of the St. Martha's Regional Hospital complex, at the Antigonish Health and Wellness Centre," Tim Guest, the health authority's vice-president of health services, said in an emailed statement.
"This approach respects the 1996 Mission Assurance Agreement with the Sisters of St. Martha that lays out the philosophy, mission and values of St. Martha's in accordance with its faith-based identity, while also meeting the legislated obligation to ensure that (medical assistance in dying) is available in the Antigonish area for those who request and meet the criteria to access that service."
Guest provided no other details explaining the rationale for the change, saying only that the relationship and the agreement with the Sisters of St. Martha is based on "mutual respect and understanding." The Sisters of St. Martha did not respond to a request for comment.
Jocelyn Downie, a professor who specializes in health law at Dalhousie University, believes the change sends a signal nationally.
"What has been recognized here in Nova Scotia is that publicly funded institutions — here publicly owned and operated institutions — cannot favour one particular religious view over another in the context of (medical assistance in dying)," Downie said.
She said while the issue hasn't been settled in law, Nova Scotia has avoided what would have been a "certain" legal challenge she believes would have been won by advocates for assisted dying.
Downie said seeing a health authority recognize that it has legal obligations is a positive development in the push to see assisted dying honoured by faith-based institutions.
The development in Nova Scotia was also welcomed by Dying With Dignity Canada, which said the move was "the right thing to do."
The organization's board chairman Jim Cowan, a former Nova Scotia senator, said the province is now a national leader on the issue, although similar changes have been made in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec through provincial legislation.
"Those are the two provinces that come closest to what we have now," Cowan said. "I hope that other provinces will follow Nova Scotia's lead."
Dying With Dignity Canada said there are currently dozens of hospitals across the country where medically assisted dying is banned on the premises, placing a burden on patients to seek transfers to other hospitals or areas where they can access services.
Spokesman Cory Ruf said the issue is particularly acute in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
"It's unconscionable to require desperately suffering people to transfer out of a facility at such a difficult moment in their lives," Ruf said. "The scale of the problem is countrywide."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2019.