This is part 1 of a four-part series of essays written in response to Canada’s assisted dying legislation.
It was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on October 24, 2016.
The Elisabeth Bruyère Hospital’s complex palliative care facility has come under scrutiny in the Ottawa Citizen recently. The subtext seems to be that the Bruyère is a publicly funded institution, so it should permit medical assistance in dying (MAID) and related consultations on its premises despite the Catholic conscience that underpins its programming and despite the Catholic spirit that gave birth to its existence as a complex palliative care institution. As a publicly minded Catholic person, I would like to offer my views on this unfolding debate.
The first thing to emphasize is the Catholic roots of the Bruyère and the impact these have had on its development. The Bruyère Hospital was founded in 1850 by Mother Elisabeth Bruyère and three other nuns, who together also founded bilingual schools and orphanages in what was then Bytown. A healthy debate on this issue would benefit from recognizing that the Bruyère Hospital’s origins as a Catholic institution are a cornerstone to its commitment to providing care to those in the last stages of life. That is because Christian compassion finds a home in the most dire of circumstances. Let us remember that good palliative care often removes the wish for assisted dying. Therefore, the Bruyère Hospital’s Catholic mission and cornerstone understandably make it recalcitrant to offer medical assistance in dying.
Second, there is a dearth of complex palliative care institutions in Ottawa. A likely explanation for this is path dependency: the theory that the decisions one faces for any given situation are limited by the decisions one has made in the past. Therefore, the decision not to open other, secular, complex palliative care institutions in Ottawa was arguably due to the fact that the Bruyère Hospital has been filling the need for palliative care in an expert way for generations.
Let us remember that on the whole we are in this situation because those in the halls of public policy development made a decision somewhere along the line not to open a secular complex palliative care hospital in Ottawa, which today would arguably permit medical assistance in dying. Instead, they decided to rely on the provision of care by a Catholic hospital, knowing full well its stance on sensitive issues such as MAID. The situation we now find ourselves in was not unplanned, nor reasonably unforeseeable.
Therefore, one takes a hard line on advocating MAID at the Bruyère only at the expense of forgetting that the Bruyère’s Catholic mission is one of the main reasons we have a complex palliative care hospital in Ottawa in the first place. Is it not hypocritical to say, “Let us use the hospital you built on the cornerstone of your faith, but when we use it, let us force you to remove that cornerstone”?
Surely, the institution would then be lacking its essential cornerstone. It is a bit like a man who moves with his family into a gracious friend’s house. When the man arrives, he insists his friend’s family move out at once to make room for his own relatives, ignoring the fact that the house was built in the first place for his friend’s family.
Some wish to ask the Bruyère to vacate its faith from its premises, ignoring the fact that the premises were built in the first place to serve its patients in accordance with its Christian faith.