Progressive Conservative health critic Jeff Yurek plans to introduce a conscience-protection amendment to legislation currently being debated in the Ontario legislature. Photo courtesy of Priscilla Jordão, Wikimedia Commons

Conscience rights to be addressed by Ontario legislators

  • March 10, 2017

The right being sought by many Ontario doctors to refuse to give patient referrals for euthanasia and assisted suicide will be addressed in committee meetings at Queen’s Park in the next month.

Progressive Conservative health critic Jeff Yurek plans to introduce a conscience-protection amendment to legislation currently being debated in the Ontario legislature.

Now in second reading, Bill 84 is designed to clear up legal ambiguities surrounding doctor-assisted suicide — everything from how coroners are to record assisted suicide deaths to the right of families to collect insurance benefits. However, the legislation currently does not include conscience protection for doctors. Instead, Ontario’s independent regulator for doctors requires all doctors to provide an “effective referral” for procedures, even if the doctor objects on moral, religious or conscience grounds.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s “duty to refer” policy applies to abortions, contraception and doctor-assisted suicide. That policy is being challenged in court by the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada.

Meantime, the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience — whose members include the Archdioceses of Toronto and Vancouver — has mounted a campaign to have conscience protection written into Bill 84. So far, the campaign claims more than 6,000 letters, emails and phone calls have gone out to MPPs.

“Since we have a piece of legislation on the floor debating the rights with regard to medical assistance in dying, this is an opportunity to ensure we protect that,” Yurek told The Catholic Register. “We’re the only jurisdiction in the world that has this ‘effective referral’ in place going against the conscience rights of our health care professionals.”

The legislature shouldn’t fear it would be interfering with the independent CPSO, Yurek said.

“There’s a balance that can be achieved and I think it can be a partnership between the CPSO and the government to ensure there’s access for people who want to access medical assistance in dying and at the same time respect the protection of health care professionals’ conscience rights,” Yurek said.

New Democratic Party health critic France Gélinas also urged balance during debate on Bill 84.

“We have to be very conscious of this pent-up demand to know more, to understand, to be respectful of the rights of physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and everybody else on the team,” Gélinas told the legislature on March 2.

During debate, Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins supported conscience protections for doctors, but stopped short of saying Bill 84 should be used to override the “effective referral” policy.

“We have an obligation to put safeguards in place for those health care professionals who choose not to participate,” Hoskins said.

In a subsequent email from his office, Hoskins expressed support for a balanced approach between the rights of patients and doctors, which could include establishing a “care coordination service” for patients and caregivers.

Yurek has pushed for a patient self-referral system for all end-of-life options, similar to Alberta’s “continuing care” end-of-life team approach. That model creates a team assessment that looks at in-home palliative care, hospice care and assisted suicide. Patients can access the system directly from a web site or a toll-free number. No referral is required.

“It’s a great model. It respects conscience rights, but also allows for access to medical assistance in dying,” said Yurek.

The Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience also backs the Alberta model.

“We’re 100 per cent behind the Alberta model,” said Christian Medical and Dental Society executive director Deacon Larry Worthen. “Not only does it provide access — direct access to people to have assessments — it also, we feel, creates a multidisciplinary team that can triage people’s requests for medical aid in dying and provide some level of safeguards insofar as the right resources will get there for the people who need service.”

Alberta lawmakers worked with that province’s College of Physicians and Surgeons to set up the end-of-life assessment system, Worthen said.

“There’s clear precedent for the province dialoguing with the college to make sure that whatever the college does is respectful of people’s constitutional rights.”

While encouraged by the promised Yurek amendment to Bill 84, the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience believes the political fight isn’t over and that calls and emails to MPPs are the best weapon at their disposal.

“We’re trying to get people involved in the political process,” said Catholic Organization for Life and Family executive director Michel MacDonald.

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