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New hope for Ontario doctors' conscience fight

  • February 5, 2019

New evidence heard in court has given Ontario’s medical conscientious objectors renewed hope.

Two days of hearings before the Ontario Court of Appeal Jan. 21-22 has provided Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) executive director Deacon Larry Worthen a dollop of confidence as he waits for a decision from the three-judge panel.

“We gave a very good presentation,” Worthen told The Catholic Register after the appeal. “There were some new arguments. There was new evidence.”

The three-judge panel’s ruling has been reserved, with observers expecting a decision in March.

With support from Ontario’s Catholic bishops, the Christian Legal Fellowship (Evangelical), B’nai Brith and the Ontario Medical Association and Canadian Physicians for Life, the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada was appealing last year’s court decision in favour of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO). The court ruled that although the College had infringed on the Charter rights of objecting doctors with rules that force doctors to refer patients for assisted suicide assessments, their rights had to be balanced against the right of patients to timely access to assisted suicide.

The original three-judge panel said that objecting doctors could avoid being forced to refer by retraining for a specialty where requests for assisted suicide could be avoided.

“We had evidence from an expert that talked about the difficulty, the virtual impossibility, of doctors retraining,” Worthen said. “We had one affidavit that said that only 2.5 per cent of all doctors positions in all of Canada would provide a safe zone for doctors.”

Pathology, hair loss, obesity medicine, sleep disorders and research medicine were about the only areas left to objecting doctors, he said.  “We argued that the decision of the court is just not practical,” said Worthen. “Can you imagine someone trained as a cardiologist suddenly having to go back and do sleep medicine?”

The CPSO argued that practising medicine is not a right but a privilege. In balancing the moral convictions of some physicians against ensuring access to legally permitted medical procedures, the policy must favour the wishes of patients, the college’s lawyers said.

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