Moira McQueen

Moira McQueen

March 21, 2016

When physician-assisted suicide is allowed in a country, it's only a matter of time until safeguards erode, says a prominent Canadian Catholic bioethicist.

Moira McQueen painted a dark picture of the advance of euthanasia in the Netherlands and Canada during a keynote speech at the annual Red Mass March 9. Safeguards are "a red herring, to put it mildly."

When the Netherlands first permitted assisted suicide in 2002, it put in place four conditions: a person had to be terminally ill, have intractable pain, give consent, and be old enough to speak on their own behalf before a doctor could carry out their death wish, she said.

"Every single one of them had gone by 2007."

Standing before 90 judges, lawyers, law students and other professionals gathered at the Vancouver Club, McQueen said it now happens that people in the Netherlands can be euthanized without their consent and without input from their families.


McQueen's own family has been affected by assisted suicide. Her daughter-in-law has a cousin who lived in the Netherlands. He was severely depressed and asked a doctor to take his life.

"His family found out after he was euthanized, because the whole question of consent meant that at 45 you don't have to ask anybody," she said. "All (my daughter-in-law) could say was: 'I didn't think they could do this.'"

McQueen warned that in countries where assisted suicide is legal, individual rights and autonomy tend to trump doctors' conscience rights, family concerns and the impact it has on a society when legislators give suicide a thumbs-up.

"The question now is: what is being said in Canada and what is being said about conscience rights of doctors?"

As Canadian legislators work to write laws by the June deadline, consultations and reports are being published suggesting what the new law should look like. The most recent federal report gave 21 recommendations, including the requirement that all publicly funded hospitals provide assisted suicide and that doctors who refuse to kill their patients make an "effective referral" to those who would.


McQueen, a moral theologian and a former lawyer, said it amounts to a gross violation of conscience.

"Conscience is a legal right. We know it's protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We know it's protected by the United Nations. . . . In fact, overall, in most countries, conscience is very much stated as a legal right."

McQueen said Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto recently released a statement saying "no other country in the world requires such a violation of conscience," as that report suggests.

Freedom of religion and of conscience, which are so often linked, must have their place in the public square and must be protected, she said. Catholics need to "stand our ground in these very distinct attempts to wrestle conscience away from us."


She said the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago put it well when he said: "If God cannot be part of public life, then the state itself plays God."

Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller voiced similar worries about the erosion of conscience rights. "I can't stress enough the importance of this question and what it means in a society that forces others to be complicit in its evil," he said that evening.

During his homily at Holy Rosary Cathedral before McQueen's presentation, he told lawyers and others the debate over assisted suicide is a "crucial turning point in how we understand fundamental values."


"In Canada, as in many other Western countries, there is an increasing tendency to confine religion to the private sphere. In these countries, we see the courts chipping away at the original understanding of religious freedom and freedom of conscience."

He lamented that physicians who devote their efforts to easing the pain and healing their patients might soon be required to do the opposite.

Miller said he was concerned about the rights of health-care workers to "freedom of conscience both as guaranteed by the natural moral law hardwired into humanity and as set forth in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Today this right is under attack."