Alberta MLA Dan Williams has introduced a bill to protect health care workers in that province. Photo by Lincoln Ho

Conscience rights battle wages on several fronts

  • November 15, 2019

As Alberta debates a private member’s bill to protect conscience rights for doctors and other health care providers, Ontario’s government is saying little about a lack of protection for doctors forced to provide referrals for assisted suicide, abortion and other procedures.

“Our government is continuing to work with stakeholders in an effort to strike the right balance that supports patients, doctors and other health care professionals. This includes listening to Ontario doctors who have concerns with conscience protections,” the media relations manager for Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Christine Elliott told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

Elliott’s staff refused to address The Register’s questions about conscience legislation to shield health care professionals from disciplinary actions by regulatory boards and colleges.

At the Cardinal’s Dinner Nov. 5, Premier Doug Ford clapped along with about 1,600 attendees when Cardinal Thomas Collins specifically called for legislation.

“I hope that our provincial legislature can work to address this issue in the days ahead by enacting legislation that protects the conscience of all health care workers,” Collins said to applause.

Christian Medical and Dental Association of Canada executive director Deacon Larry Worthen still holds out hope for legislation in Ontario. “We’re working behind the scenes to urge politicians there to do the right thing and to support doctors, nurses and health care professionals in the province,” he said.

Peace River MLA Dan Williams of Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party introduced Bill 207, The Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act, on Nov. 7. The proposed Alberta law follows a court case Worthen’s group lost in Ontario. The Ontario Appeal Court’s May 15 decision, which confirmed a lower court ruling, held that although requiring doctors to refer for medical deaths violates the conscience rights of doctors, the violation is justified in the interest of universal access to a legal medical service.

Williams told Grandin Media he feared the Ontario court ruling will set a national precedent, putting all doctors in danger of disciplinary action if they refuse to refer for euthanasia.

The problem for provincial health ministers is that many doctors will move rather than give in to the dictates of regulatory colleges, Worthen said.

“Minister Elliott completely understands the situation. She understands that she’s going to lose doctors from the province. She is losing them now. That court decision was totally impractical in terms of meeting the needs of the people of Ontario,” he said.

Health ministries should set up systems so patients can access assessments for medically-induced death without a referral, according to Worthen. 

Suggestions by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario that dissenting doctors should switch their practice or requalify in areas of medicine where they won’t encounter requests for assisted suicide have been rejected by doctors, said Worthen.

“That doesn’t make any sense. If you are a palliative care physician — those folks are already scarce — how is it helping patients for you to move into hair-loss medicine?” 

During last year’s election campaign Ford promised a PC government would legislate to protect conscience rights.

“We’re still hoping that they will fulfil that commitment,” said Worthen.

Comments (1)

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Has anyone considered the "benefits" that the spread of professionals having to answer to customer/client/patient wants rather than needs, will bring. Maybe lawyers will be free to bribe witnesses because that is what his clients wants. Maybe...

Has anyone considered the "benefits" that the spread of professionals having to answer to customer/client/patient wants rather than needs, will bring. Maybe lawyers will be free to bribe witnesses because that is what his clients wants. Maybe bankers and accountants will have unlimited access to insider trading and money laundering because that is what the customer wants. Never mind that it might be considered illegal now, they will only have to say I was "just following orders".

History (should) teach us that operating without a conscience can lead to very bad things happening. An improperly formed conscience can also lead to very bad things happening. If there is a firm conviction that all Alberta doctors past/present and future have poorly formed consciences than the legislation might make sense.

Are medical schools designed teach doctors to follow patients wants or are they taught to respond to the needs of the patient. If it is wants, then no problem. If it is needs then how are they to be retrained to follow a patients wants? If doctors are not trained to respond to a patient's wants and a conscience is the wrong tool to use to discern what the patient wants, what qualifications are required?

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Spencer Craig
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