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Family sues B.C. after daughter denied MAiD access at Catholic-run hospital

Lawsuit seeks to remove section of B.C.'s MAiD policy that allows faith-based facilities to opt out
Pedestrians and cars pass by St. Paul Hospital in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2006. B.C. Health Minister George Abbott is investing claims that patients were able to get faster treatment on public equipment at St. Paul’s by paying a private clinic.

The parents of a Vancouver woman are suing B.C. over a religious exemption to the province's Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) policy that forced their terminally ill daughter to transfer hospitals and denied them a chance to say their final goodbyes. 

A lawsuit filed in the B.C. Supreme Court on Monday (June 17) describes how Sam O'Neill was diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer in early 2022 at age 33. She was approved for MAiD about a year later, in February 2023, but had to be rushed to St. Paul's Hospital that March before she could come up with an end-of-life plan.

O'Neill was in extreme pain and was told by doctors that her cancer had spread to her spine and broken her vertebrae. There were no more treatment options available. 

O'Neill planned to follow through with a medically assisted death, according to the lawsuit, but was told no one would provide it at St. Paul's Hospital because it is operated by Providence Health Care Society, a Catholic health-care organization. Under B.C.'s MAiD policy, faith-based organizations are allowed to opt out of administering the procedure.  

In its policy on MAiD, Providence calls the process incompatible with Catholic teachings. 

For patients at its facilities, their only option is to transfer to another hospital.

On April 4, 2023, O'Neill did just that. She said some final goodbyes to friends and family members at St. Paul's and then was heavily sedated and moved to another nearby hospital. O'Neill had hoped to speak with her family once more there, but she lost consciousness during the transfer and never woke up. 

"During the transfer, Ms. O’Neill was writhing and moaning in pain and had to receive a further injection of pain medication. She spent her last hours unable to see, hear or feel any of the people who had gathered to support her," the lawsuit reads. 

She received a medically assisted death later that day.

In a news release from advocacy group Dying With Dignity Canada, O'Neill's parents Gaye and Jim described their daughter's passing as "violent and cruel."

"We don't know if we will ever heal from this experience, but we know we owe it to Sam to make sure this never happens to another family."

Dr. Jyothi Jayaraman, a second plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that kind of experience isn't unique to O'Neill. Jayaraman said there have been numerous times when she has had to deny MAiD access to a patient because they were being cared for at a facility run by Providence. She chose to resign from May’s Place Hospice in 2023 after Providence took over, saying it contradicted "her values and her understanding of her obligation to provide patient-centred care."

The lawsuit argues that the religious exemption to MAiD results in an outright denial of the process for some patients if they are too fragile to be transferred, die as a result of the transfer, or have no other facility they can be taken to. For others, the lawsuit says, the exemption means patients endure excess pain during a transfer, have to prolong their suffering while waiting to be moved, lose the chance to say their goodbyes because they are so heavily sedated and aren't able to make all the end-of-life plans they would like to because of logistical challenges. 

The lawsuit is urging B.C. to remove MAiD's religious exemption on the grounds that it interferes with both patients' and clinicians' rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While faith-based organizations may run some health-care facilities in B.C., those facilities are still public services, the lawsuit says.

"The state cannot allow public policy to be dictated by the religious beliefs of certain individuals. Further, state actors cannot use their positions as providers of public services to further or impose their religious beliefs on others."

The lawsuit also notes that patients often don't have the choice of which hospital they end up at if they are taken in during an emergency. 

In a statement, Providence spokesperson Shaf Hussain said they are reviewing the court filing to determine their next steps.

"Providence is committed to providing compassionate care to all patients and residents."

Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a statement that he respects the perspectives of all parties involved and cannot comment while it is before the courts. 

“I have immense compassion for all patients and their loved ones that choose and go through the medical assistance in dying (MAiD) process," he said.

In November 2023, he announced that Vancouver Coastal Health will be opening a clinical space next to St. Paul's Hospital where patients can access MAiD instead of having to be transferred elsewhere. It's expected to be ready by August of this year, but no similar options have been provided for other Providence-run health-care facilities. 

Black Press Media also reached out to Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, who is also named as a defendant, but not did immediately hear back. 

None of the defendants have filed legal responses.  

About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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