Progressive Conservative MPP Jeff Yurek's private member's bill on conscience rights was voted down May 18. Photo by Michael Swan

Ontario conscience rights bill voted down

  • May 19, 2017

In a strict party lines vote, a bill that would have shielded doctors and other health care providers from punishment for refusing to refer their patients on for assisted suicide was voted down at Queen’s Park on May 18.

In a recorded vote, 39 Liberals and New Democrats voted against Bill 129, Jeff Yurek’s private members’ bill aimed at protecting the conscience rights of doctors and other health care professionals. All 23 Progressive Conservatives backed their health critic’s bill.

Focus now shifts to the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada’s court challenge to the forced referral policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. Three days of oral arguments are scheduled for Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Divisional Court June 13-15.

Members of Concerned Ontario Doctors and allied campaigners for conscience rights were in the Queen’s Park gallery for the debate. At one point Deputy Speaker Soo Wong warned the doctors not to clap for arguments in favour of the bill.

“We welcome all of our visitors, but you’re not allowed to participate in the debate, including clapping,” Wong said.

At a morning press conference before the afternoon debate, the doctors declared they would fight on even if the bill is voted down.

As he introduced his bill, Yurek asked fellow MPPs to “vote your conscience.”

“Let’s not let a regulatory body be allowed to erode the freedom of this country. Health care providers deserve the same protection of rights as every other Canadian,” Yurek said.

Under College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario rules, doctors may be fined or even lose their license if they fail to provide an “effective referral” for assisted suicide when asked. Following a referral, the patient would be first assessed by a willing doctor and then have that assessment confirmed by a second doctor. Death normally occurs within 10 days.

Liberal John Fraser attacked the bill as “a mirror or a carbon copy of an amendment put forward in Bill 84.” Passed without amendments earlier in May, Bill 84 brings a number of Ontario laws into line with the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2015 decision striking assisted suicide from the Criminal Code of Canada and the federal law legalizing the procedure.

During Bill 84 debate Liberals offered to re-open the bill to allow for an amended pre-amble which would say the bill should not be interpreted as a limitation on religious freedom or freedom of conscience. Conservatives refused to give unanimous consent to open debate on an amended pre-amble.

“A pre-amble will not protect any of the people. It won’t protect them in court. It won’t protect them, period,” said PC Vic Fideli.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins argued that giving doctors the right to refuse to participate or assist in actually killing patients, but forcing them to refer for the procedure, strikes an appropriate balance.

“I respect, as the Charter of this country does, their right to act in principle with, and in accordance with, their conscience,” said Hoskins.

Anl argument in favour of the College of Physicians and Surgeons regulation came from NDP MPP and United Church minister Cheri Di Novo.

The only conscience that counts is the conscience of the person asking for assisted suicide and neither doctors nor clergy should act as judges, DiNovo said.

“Each one of us is responsible ethically and morally to stand before our God and to account for our lives, and that that day of reckoning will come. That is up to us. It is not up to our doctors. It is not up to our priests. It is not up to anyone else but us, and it is our sacred responsibility to uphold that as people of faith,” she said. “We should of course not force any medical professional, any priest, any chaplain to put into action something that they don’t want to do. Of course, we get that. But that is not what this bill is about. This is about a referral.”

Yurek argued that referral is participation and in fact an “effective referral” sets in motion a chain of events which usually ends in the patient’s death.

“Whether or not the college believes it (referral) is participating or not, the doctor’s billing number, which we heard through committee, sticks with that patient through that whole process. Even in the technical workings of OHIP, the doctor is part of the process,” said Yurek. “Ontario is the only jurisdiction in the world with this type of policy that disciplines their health care providers for choosing not to participate in medical assistance in dying. Oregon, Alberta, B.C., Europe all ensure conscience protection. Yesterday, Manitoba introduced legislation to protect the conscience rights of health care providers in that province.”

Yurek argued his bill would have no effect on access to assisted dying because the province is committed to a care co-ordination system that would allow patients to access MAID assessments without a referral.

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