Secular naturopath Dr. Nora Pope said that conscience rights aren’t primarily about religion, but rather about the convictions of citizens and the obligation governments have to respect and protect citizens and their convictions. Photo by Michael Swan

Naturopath doctor argues for conscience rights protection

  • March 23, 2017

A naturopath stole the show as hearings began into Ontario’s enabling legislation for doctor assisted suicide at Queen’s Park on March 23.

Conscience rights aren’t primarily about religion, but rather about the convictions of citizens and the obligation governments have to respect and protect citizens and their convictions, Dr. Nora Pope told members of the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs.

“I won’t refer for killing because I don’t believe in killing,” Pope told legislators as she pleaded for an amendment to Bill 84 to protect the conscience rights of medical practitioners.

Pope’s conscientious objection to medical aid in dying (MAID) is based on personal conviction and her 15 years of practice as a naturopathic doctor, not on religion.

“These concepts of conscience rights are from the Enlightenment. They are secular concepts,” Pope said. “Many atheists are not in favour of killing.”

Respect for freedom of conscience is “the bedrock of civilized society,” Pope argued.

She pointed out that some of the first jurisdictions to legalize doctor assisted suicide, Oregon and Belgium, protect doctors who refuse to offer the procedure or refer for medicalized suicide. It should worry legislators that Ontario is about to become the only jurisdiction in the world that forces doctors to refer for the procedure, Pope said.

“It will distort the fabric of society toward MAID,” said Pope.

NDP health critic France Gélinas used the morning hearings to hammer the government over what she called an inadequate, rushed consultation process before bringing the new bill to the legislature. Both Quebec and Alberta found ways to institute legal, voluntary euthanasia without forcing doctors to refer, she said.

“We never created that safe space so we can have this conversation,” Gélinas said.

Gelinas pointedly asked Markham-Stouffville staff respirologist Dr. Althea Burrell whether the government had consulted her about conscience rights before introducing Bill 84.

“No,” Burrell said.

“Do you think you should have (been consulted)?” Gelinas asked.

“Yes,” said Burrell.

Liberal MPP John Fraser defended the government’s consultation process.

“I believe our consultation process was really robust,” he said.

Fraser argued that the highly technical Bill 84, which adjusts provincial laws on insurance, coroners’ reports, Workers’ Compensation, pensions and other matters, is the wrong place to hash out a compromise on the conscience rights of doctors.

“We have to figure out a way to balance those two rights,” he said.

Conservative health critic Jeff Yurek clashed with Fraser over whether Bill 84 was the right place to protect conscience rights for doctors.

“This is the right place to have this conversation,” Yurek said.

Yurek plans to introduce an amendment to the bill. Amendments must be presented to the committee by April 7.

A Catholic doctor who works with many patients nearing the end of life, Burrell explained to MPPs why referral is such a big issue for objecting doctors.

“This means I am, quite apart from my wishes, instrumental in causing the death of my patient,” she said.

Like Pope, Burrell pointed out how Ontario’s duty-to-refer policies are at odds with the practice and policies in every other jurisdiction that has legalized medical assistance in dying.

“We are really an unfortunate outlier in this regard,” she said.

In addition to arguing for her own rights as an individual doctor, Burrell pleaded for hospices, nursing homes and hospitals to be able to allowed to opt out.

“I would also want my care team to share my views on life,” Burrell said.

Doctors who won’t refer for MAID are not abandoning their patients, Burrell said.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.

Nor would she, as a doctor, stand in the way of a patient accessing MAID through a neutral, self-referral process for assessments.

Christian Medical and Dental Society executive director Deacon Larry Worthen spoke about doctors threatened with having their medical licences suspended by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.

“There’s a problem when a regulator seeks to impose their beliefs on us,” he said. “It’s wrong for the college to say, ‘Look, it’s not a problem for us, we don’t see why it’s a problem for you?”

It’s up to MPPs to solve the problem of equal access to MAID across the province, not the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Worthen said.

“The college doesn’t have the resources to create a care co-ordination system,” said Worthen.

The current system, which depends on individual doctor referrals, “is creating a bottleneck” for patients who want assisted suicide, said Worthen.

An earlier version of the story identified Dr. Nora Pope as an atheist. She has since clarified with The Catholic Register that she is not an atheist.

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