The coronavirus pandemic is forcing doctors to set priorities. In times of peace they are not always clear, but in times of war – and governments have declared war on this invisible enemy – it’s vital.

For instance, is euthanasia an essential service? Should patients battling to live have to compete for healthcare resources with patients who want to die? That is the question that Canadian doctors are grappling with in the coronavirus epidemic.

At least two clinics in Ontario have stopped providing euthanasia (or MAID, medical assistance in dying, as it is called in Canada) to prevent transmission and to free up healthcare resources. Others regard it as essential and are relaxing the rules to allow “virtual assessments of eligibility”.

“It’s not a decision that we have taken lightly,” said Andrea Frolic, of Hamilton Health Sciences, which has shuttered its program. “It’s heartbreaking for us, as it is for patients and families seeking this care.”

“I think it’s really unfortunate. I don’t know their rationale for having shut it down completely,” Chantal Perrot, a Toronto MAID provider, told the Globe and Mail. “I don’t understand how they could not see MAID as an essential service for people who are at end of life.”

The University Health Network in Toronto is continuing to provide MAID to inpatients during the pandemic. “We had to make some very difficult decisions with respect to other services and programs that were put on hold or shuttered during this pandemic,” said Mark Bonta, who is in charge of euthanasia at UHN. “Given that MAID is something that is listed as a human right for our patients … we recognized it was important that this be deemed an essential service.”

Stefanie Green, a Victoria doctor and the president of the Canadian Association of MAID Assessors and Providers (CAMAP,) said the health authority on Vancouver Island has also deemed assisted dying an essential service. Officials there are even providing protective equipment to doctors who are still willing to help patients access euthanasia. 

Apparently these doctors don’t appreciate the grim humour of their position. While the whole country – the whole world! – is mobilising to save as many lives as possible, they are complaining that they might have to stop killing their patients.

The coronavirus pandemic is a disaster, but in a way it shows that most of the world is still essentially pro-life, still essentially sceptical of an unfettered right to die. Most coronavirus victims are over 70 and have only a few years left to live. But governments everywhere have decided to rescue them with draconian social distancing strategies even if it wreaks havoc upon their economies.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said it best in a press conference last week. All lives are precious and we have to do our utmost to save them:

“My mother is not expendable. And your mother is not expandable…We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable. We’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life. We are going to fight every way we can to save every life that we can. Because that’s what I think it means to be an American.”

Yes, Cuomo is a bundle of contradictions. Last year he endorsed assisted suicide, saying “the older we get and the better medicine gets the more we’ve seen people suffer for too, too long.” But perhaps the crisis reveals what he thinks when he is not trying desperately to be politically correct.

Hopefully one effect of the pandemic will be to remind us ever so powerfully that the sacrifices we made were based on a fundamental commitment to protect life, all life. Saving lives is an essential service; euthanasia is not an essential service.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet