Dr. Ramona Coelho of London, Ont., said a CPSO policy forcing doctors to make an effective referral is only harming patients. Photo by Michael Swan

Conscience fight moves to the political arena

  • June 6, 2019

Having lost twice in court, the battle for conscience rights for health care workers in Ontario is now a political battle.

“We feel we really need legislation,” said Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada executive director Deacon Larry Worthen. “It’s basically for us a call to action.”

The latest setback came May 15 when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruling upheld a College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) requirement that doctors in the province must give referral for medical services such as assisted dying and abortion that conflict with their moral or religious beliefs.

Despite a campaign promise from Premier Doug Ford that a Progressive Conservative government would legislate to protect doctors who won’t refer for euthanasia, abortion or other medical procedures for reasons of conscience or religious belief, Ford’s cabinet is saying as little as possible about passing a law that would run counter to the CPSO’s “effective referral” policy. The regulatory college’s policy could see doctors fined, their practice limited or stripped of their licence if they refuse to refer.

Asked whether legislation is in the works, Health Minister Christine Elliott’s communication staff told The Catholic Register, “Our government is continuing to look for ways to strike the right balance in our health care system that supports both patients, doctors and other health care professionals. To that end, we continue to listen and work with doctors who may have concerns with conscience protections.”

The Christian Medical and Dental Society, Canadian Physicians for Life and the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies still have not decided whether to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada after losing two unanimous decisions in Ontario courts, said Worthen.

“I would think it would not be a good idea to take this to the Supreme Court of Canada,” said Dr. Ramona Coehlo, a London, Ont., family physician. “I’m concerned about the precedent that would set at a higher court for everybody.”

Coehlo wants Queen’s Park to understand how the CPSO policy is already shutting down options for Ontario patients.

“I know people who have stopped doing palliative care. I know people (doctors) who have moved. I know nurses who are being bullied at the hospital. So I know it’s real,” she said.

Worthen is also hearing from doctors who are sending resumes to clinics and hospitals in the United States. He claims the three organizations who tried to sue the CPSO represent about 1,500 doctors.

“Is the government going to stand by while 1,500 doctors are unable to work in Ontario?” Worthen asked. “There’s just a practical problem here.”

Coehlo believes forced referral policies are hitting even more doctors who aren’t members of the objecting medical organizations.

“Patients are going to suffer if all the conscientious doctors who care just kind of leave,” she said. “The (court) ruling says we should all be sports medicine doctors or all do hair clinics. I think that we’re thousands.”

It will be up to patients to save objecting doctors by writing to their MPPs, said Worthen.

“We’re really counting on rank-and-file people to get on the website (canadiansforconscience.ca/ontario) and start writing their MPPs,” he said. “The government needs to know there’s a constituency out there of people who really feel strongly about this issue.”

Since the Conservatives were elected, 213 letters to MPPs have been sent through the website. 

Worthen wants legislators to understand that the decision has rolled out the unwelcome mat to a significant percentage of the medical profession.

“It basically says that doctors can focus their practice on hair loss or obesity medicine. This is an insult to the doctors who are trained in cancer, in oncology, or in palliative care, or in family medicine — who devote their lives to these specialties.”

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