Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League

Groups make effort to protect physicians’ conscience rights

  • February 13, 2015

OTTAWA - Doctors’ conscience rights are threatened by a proposed policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) that may force them to refer patients for morally problematic procedures, warn some physicians’ organizations.

The CPSO has given a Feb. 20 deadline for input into the policy that would force physicians to refer patients for procedures such as abortion and assisted suicide (the Supreme Court on Feb. 6 struck down prohibitions against assisted suicide) against their consciences. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan is also considering similar changes to its policy, with a deadline of March 6 for public input.

The Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) Canada has been working closely with the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies in rallying opposition to the proposed changes.

“The proposed policy demands that doctors refer for, and in some cases actually perform, procedures like birth control, abortion and even euthanasia,” said CMDS executive director Larry Worthen. “Physicians would have to perform these procedures when the regulator considers them to be ‘urgent or otherwise necessary to prevent imminent harm, suffering and/or deterioration.’  

“This wording suggests a very broad and subjective requirement that can be open to abuse,” he warned. “Doctors who cannot participate due to deeply held moral or religious commitments will be vulnerable to punishment from the regulator, even though their fundamental freedom of conscience and religion is guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) slammed CPSO’s proposed policy changes in a strongly worded statement issued Feb. 4. COLF warned the policy change “would be devastating for Ontario doctors who seek to inform their consciences by their faith” and who may be forced to either leave the province or abandon the practise of medicine.

“These implications would also be disturbing for many patients who want to be treated by physicians who share their vision of the human person,” COLF said.

The CPSO policy would “replace the supremacy of conscience with that of a self-appointed authority functioning outside the sphere of its competence,” said the pro-life, pro-family organization, which is co-sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council.

Alliance for Life Ontario, a coalition of 55 educational pro-life groups in the province, in in its submission to CPSO released to the public Feb. 5, said doctors were being bullied to adhere to a “procedure on demand mentality.”

“Medical professionals who disapprove certain ‘procedures’ for varying reasons cannot be forced into being part of medical killing whether that be induced abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia or prescribing abortifacient contraceptives even by referral,” said Alliance for Life Ontario. “There are ways to accommodate both patient and doctor, and pressuring good physicians with religious, ethical or moral objections out of health care is not one of them.”

In Toronto, the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Joseph Moscati Doctors’ Guild and the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute co-hosted a webinar Feb. 9 “to help both practitioners and concerned Catholics ... frame response to (CPSO) policy document on professional obligations and human rights,” said Phil Horgan, president of the Catholic Civil Rights League.

Horgan spoke along with league executive director Christian Elia and the CCBI’s executive director Moira McQueen at the webinar.

“We need to know about this issue since all doctors would be forced to refer people for procedures that they would not do themselves because it would be against their moral stance and conscience to either perform the procedure or to send the patient requesting to someone who would,” said McQueen. “They must be allowed to refuse to perform those types of procedures and as citizens we should support them.”

Four doctors also spoke that day, and Horgan noted “a strong theme… was the importance of integrity in their practices and the value that such honesty and integrity serves in the delivery of health care.”

Gerry Chipeur, a constitutional lawyer who acted as legal counsel for the Christian Legal Fellowship in its intervention in the Carter decision, said the Supreme Court in Carter has made a clear statement on the conscience and religious freedom rights of doctors.

“That means physicians must be accommodated,” he said. “There is no precedent in history that would support what the colleges are doing in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

“If (the colleges) are listening they will take this as a message to them to stop persecuting religious physicians on the basis of their conscience,” predicting neither policy would stand up in court.

(With files from Evan Boudreau, The Catholic Register.)

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