Trampled rights

By 
  • March 12, 2015

Requiring doctors to remain pillars of integrity while chipping at their moral underpinning is an odious contradiction. Yet that is what the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario proposes with a draconian new policy that tramples on conscience and religious rights.

The provincial regulatory body disregarded the majority view of 16,000 public submissions, dismissed the opinion of the Ontario Medical Association and the American Medical Association, and rejected the policy of the Canadian Medical Association when it voted 21-3 to force doctors to refer patients who seek treatments that their own doctor won’t provide due to moral or religious convictions.

This is a terrible decision. It overturns the historic right of doctors to act according to their conscience and refuse to participate directly or indirectly in abortion, contraception or other treatments that offend their moral or religious sensibilities. Ontario doctors are now required to provide “an effective referral” for these services regardless of their “personal beliefs and values” or face sanctions.

The college defends the change by suggesting a doctors’ conscience and religious rights remain intact because no one will be forced personally to provide medical services they deem objectionable. All doctors must do, it asserts, is make a referral and then, voila, doctors are magically off the ethical hook. But that logic is twisted. If a person believes certain acts are wrong, it is equally wrong to support or encourage others to commit those acts.

“It’s just a referral,” said Dr. Dennis Pitt, in support of the new policy.

Clearly, though, it is much more than that. The effect of this policy is to bully ethical people into betraying deeply held convictions and strong-arm them into abandoning principles. Ontario doctors have always been permitted to follow their own moral compass. Now that compass is pointed in one direction and doctors are being ordered to fall in line.

This policy lands one month after the Supreme Court legalized doctor-assisted suicide. Although the Court said no doctor can be compelled to kill a patient, it was silent on the matter of referral. It wants legislators and regulators to sort out that thorny detail.

In Ontario, where doctors have been stripped of their conscience and religious rights, it seems inevitable that they will be expected to participate directly with a needle or indirectly through referral in assisted suicide.

Whether this new Ontario policy can be enforced remains unclear. Principled people aren’t likely to easily bend. And the courts may have a say. Still, it’s disquieting to watch a bullying majority become disdainful of the fundamental rights of medical colleagues. As one doctor put it: “If we want doctors to act ethically, why do we force them to do what they regard as wrong?”    

Why indeed.

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