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An increasing number of British Columbians strongly support medical assistance in dying (MAiD). The most recent poll (December 2021) by Ipsos on behalf of Dying With Dignity Canada, shows support in the province at 89 per cent, and 74 per cent believe all health-care facilities that receive public funds have an obligation to provide the full range of legal health-care services.

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Although legal in Canada since 2016, Canadians are often denied access to medical assistance in dying in many health-care institutions on religious grounds. British Columbians’ access to MAiD is being unfairly restricted by an outdated 1996 Master Agreement between the provincial government and the Denominational Health Association (DHA), which represents 21 owners of 44 faith-based health-care facilities across the province.

A “forced transfer” occurs when a patient is made to move locations for an assisted death because the DHA facility they are in forbids MAID. Already suffering individuals endure a grievous, undignified transfer when their health is fragile. These transfers remove patients from their community of care and place them in an alien setting, a situation which greatly undermines their mental and physical health. In some cases, a forced transfer delays or even denies MAiD if the patient loses mental capacity.

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The largest DHA member is Providence Health Care, which has received over $3 billion in taxpayer dollars over the past five fiscal years. The government has committed a further $1.2 billion toward the construction of Providence’s new $2.2-billion St. Paul’s Hospital. Providence’s refusal to allow MAID in any of its facilities applies to this new hospital.

Health-care professionals who have a “conscious objection” to participating in the MAiD process are not required to do so under the existing federal legislation. They already have legal protection regardless of where they work. However, patients and clinicians who are supportive of MAID are denied participation in MAiD provision in DHA facilities due to an antiquated policy. Where are their rights? Furthermore, many legal experts believe that the Supreme Court of Canada’s jurisprudence to date on freedom of religion suggests that publicly funded hospitals would likely not qualify for any protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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It’s time for the government of BC to require all publicly funded health-care providers to allow medical assistance in dying in their facilities. If the government won’t take action, I can foresee a day when a family that has endured a forced transfer mounts a court challenge against the religious exemptions provided in the DHA Master Agreement. It can’t come soon enough.

Alex Muir, Dying With Dignity Canada, Metro Vancouver chapter chair

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