My Great Aunt Was a Sister-Nurse at this Catholic Hospital — Now They Do Euthanasia

In 2016, Canada passed the Medical Aid in Dying bill, which legalized both assisted suicide and euthanasia.

(photo: Arek Socha/CC0/Pixabay)

Back in 1996, the government promised my great aunt and the other Sisters of St. Martha that they would maintain the Catholic identity of their hospital. We all know how well governments keep their promises. Now the hospital will be offering assisted suicide and euthanasia, showing that bureaucrats, not just politicians, say one thing and do another.

The Sisters of St. Martha are a small diocesan-rite religious community in the diocese of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. In the early 20th century they started a hospital in Antigonish, which eventually became the current St. Martha’s Regional Hospital, built in 1989. For years, my great aunt, Sr. Alice Buckley, was a nurse at the hospital: first as a laywoman and then as a sister. In 1996, for several reasons including economics and vocations, the government health board took over operation. At the time, the hospital’s history states, “A Mission Assurance Agreement is signed by the Sisters of St. Martha, the Eastern Regional Health Board and the Department of Health, ensuring the Catholic identity of St. Martha’s Regional Hospital.” Even though it was run by the government, things contrary to Catholic teaching, like abortions or sterilizations, were not provided.

Now, that is changing. The government is forcing euthanasia and assisted suicide on the hospital. Technically, they are doing all of them in a separate building that is connected, not the hospital itself, to fulfill the letter (although definitely not the spirit) of the 1996 agreement. In a statement, The Sisters have noted that they have been promised by the health authority euthanasia will not happen in the hospital. However, assessments that can end in “prescribing” or ordering euthanasia will happen on hospital grounds, and those are also contrary to our Catholic faith.

The problem is that once such laws are passed, they become oppressive. Tim Guest, a VP of the health authority, said, “This approach respects the 1996 Mission Assurance Agreement with the Sisters of St. Martha that lays out the philosophy, mission and values of St. Martha’s in accordance with its faith-based identity, while also meeting the legislated obligation to ensure that [assisted suicide and euthanasia] is available in the Antigonish area for those who request and meet the criteria to access that service.” It is oppressive when it is considered a “legislated obligation” to allow doctors to kill patients.

Other hospitals in Canada also prohibit euthanasia on-site. Many suspect that using a separate building right next door will likely be used to circumvent such restrictions and to push such practices into every corner of Canada.

In 2016, Canada passed the Medical Aid in Dying bill, which legalized both assisted suicide and euthanasia. Some Canadian bishops have been forceful in arguing against it. The bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories said (the first lines of an extensive 30-page guide):

Death by assisted suicide and euthanasia has been made legal in Canada. These grievous affronts to the dignity of human life from beginning to natural end are never morally justified. The legal permission now granted to these practices does not change the moral law. The teaching of the Church on these matters is clear. Euthanasia “is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person.” Since suicide, objectively speaking, is a gravely immoral act, it follows that “to concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called “assisted suicide,” means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused.” (cf. St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, nn. 65-66)

The CNN report is also misleading. It talks about a Canadian law, which is what legalized “medical aid in dying,” but then gives statistics only for Nova Scotia. It states, “Fewer than 40 people had the procedure in 2018.” Although the numbers for Nova Scotia were 38, that province represents only 2.57% of the Canadian population. For comparison, Virginia also represents 2.57% of the U.S. population: if we were talking about a U.S. nationwide cause of death, I think we’d all agree that showing stats only for Virginia would be misleading.

In the end, I feel bad for the Sisters of St. Martha who negotiated 23 years ago in good faith only to be undercut by a technicality now. I’ve seen the hospital several times when visiting my great aunt at the motherhouse/retirement home next door. Back in 1998, I even visited the chapel where Sr. Alice served as the sacristan early in her retirement. In 2018, I assisted at her funeral and her burial in a field right behind the motherhouse. The hospital was clearly visible during the burial. Little did I know, I was there for the last days of the hospital’s fully Catholic identity as well.