CNS photo/Bob Roller

Defend integrity

  • August 7, 2014

Doctors hold a favoured place in society because they are seen as models of compassion and integrity. They are admired as healers and moral leaders, virtuous people, widely respected. If you can’t trust your doctor, who can you trust? 

But there is a legitimate concern that a current undertaking by the Ontario College of Physicians could lead to erosion of that stature. The College is conducting a review of its human-rights-code policy amid some pressure to purge religious freedom and conscience rights from everyday medical practice. First step is an ongoing consulting process that is seeking professional and public input. 

Here is The Register’s input: leave the current policy alone and do nothing to undermine a doctor’s autonomy to assert their Charter rights of freedom of religion and conscience. 

Currently, Ontario doctors can follow their moral, religious and personal beliefs when dispensing non-emergency care. They can refuse to participate in treatments that conflict with sincerely held positions of conscience, such as counselling abortions, prescribing contraception or, should it someday come to pass, assisting in patient suicides or administering euthanasia. They are allowed, even encouraged, to retain their moral integrity. 

That is how it should be. If not a violation of legal rights it is an affront to human dignity to compel someone to act against their conscience. This seems particularly more obvious when it comes to the intimate profession of medicine. 

Dispensing and receiving health care is a deeply personal interaction. Doctors deal with all types of serious physical and emotional problems. Patients require doctors who are principled and ethical and who always follow a sturdy moral compass. That doesn’t mean doctors must be religious, but they must have a well-anchored understanding of right and wrong and serve their patients with unfailing integrity guided by a well-formed conscience. 

As one doctor wrote on the College’s web site, to expect doctors to betray their moral conscience yet practice with integrity is a gross contradiction. Integrity and conscience are inseparable. 

“No one wants to be cared for by a physician who has become accustomed to violating her integrity,” said a doctor. 

“As a patient, would I want a doctor who is willing to compromise their integrity?” asked another. “Certainly not.” 

It would be a grave injustice to strip religious and conscience rights from medicine and force many good doctors into the no-win position of having to renounce their beliefs or abandon their profession. The current system lets doctors be honest with themselves and with their patients. No one is denied emergency care and non-emergency treatments are available from the many doctors who, with a clear conscience, accept any patient. 

The system works. Leave it alone. 

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