Saskatchewan doctors denied conscience rights

By  Mary Deutscher, Canadian Catholic News
  • October 1, 2015

SASKATOON - Saskatchewan doctors concerned about their loss of conscience rights are saying they will now be discriminated against for expressing conscience concerns on certain procedures.

Despite the concerns raised from around the province, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan passed a controversial policy denying conscience rights for its members Sept. 18. The policy passed by a vote of nine in favour, three against, with three abstentions.

Concerns regarding the policy have centred on two main areas. First, the ambiguous wording in the requirement that physicians “make arrangements” for their patients to access treatments that the physician finds morally objectionable. Second, the requirement that physicians provide treatment when it “must be provided within a limited time to be effective and it is not reasonably possible to arrange for another physician or health care provider to provide that treatment.” This could potentially include, for example, the chemical abortion pill RU-486, which was approved by Health Canada this summer for use in first trimester pregnancies.

The Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada (CMDS) is consulting its legal team to determine whether it will challenge the new policy.

CMDS executive director Larry Worthen said that “passage of this policy means that physicians who have conscience concerns about specific procedures will be discriminated against by the College simply because of their religious or moral convictions. Canadians’ rights of conscience and protection from discrimination are guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Saskatoon’s Dr. Sheila Harding expressed concern about patient welfare under the new policy.

“I am deeply dismayed by this policy,” Harding said. “It requires that, in some circumstances, doctors must intentionally harm our patients or risk discipline by our provincial regulatory authority.”

Much of the discussion around previous drafts of the policy concerned the moral implications of making a formal referral. Most physicians who exercise a moral objection to procedures such as sex-selective abortion are willing to provide patients with information on how to legally access the procedure, but are not willing to be directly involved by providing a referral. As Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins explained in his March 24 letter concerning a similar policy in Ontario, “by insisting they provide an effective referral on (matters of conscience), in essence, the physician is being asked to serve as an accomplice in the procedure.”

Suggested revisions to overcome these concerns were jointly presented by the CMDS, the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies and Canadian Physicians for Life.

Regarding the requirement that physicians “make arrangements,” the groups suggested the language should be clarified to state that doctors are to provide patients “with information to allow the patient to arrange timely access” to full and balanced health information and/or to medical services.

“This rephrasing clarifies the obligations of both physician and patient, ensures the patient has access to the required information, and allows the physician the freedom to find creative solutions in the exercise of her conscience,” wrote the physicians’ groups.

(Prairie Messenger)

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