Dr. Christina Lamb, a bioethicist speaking at a conference on conscience rights, says health care is looked at more as a service than “a moral endeavour.” Photo by Lincoln Ho

Conscience rights bill dies in committee

By  Kyle Greenham, Canadian Catholic News
  • November 28, 2019

EDMONTON -- A United Conservative Party MLA has lost his bid to strengthen the rights of health-care providers in Alberta to refuse procedures contrary to their moral beliefs.

Dan Williams’ Bill 207, the Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act, was shot down by his fellow members of the legislature who sit on the assembly’s standing committee for private members’ bills. Eight of 10 committee members voted against the bill’s second reading, including some of Williams’ UCP colleagues.

Neither Premier Jason Kenney nor Health Minister Tyler Shandro had voiced support for the bill. Nevertheless, Williams will continue to advocate for conscience rights.

“The reason that we’re bringing it forward is that we understand these really important fundamental freedoms, like freedom of conscience, are really important to all Albertans,” Williams told reporters immediately following the Nov. 21 decision.

“It only seems fair to me that we can give those individuals who want to practise medicine the confidence to know they can do so with the defence of their most deeply-held beliefs.”

Bill 207 had received a mix of strong support and resounding criticism since Williams introduced it in November. Many health care workers and advocates saw the bill as an important protection for conscientious objectors. Now, some of them are worried the committee outcome may set a precedent for future threats to religious and conscience freedom.

“Without conscience rights, the rest of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms would crumble underneath that,” said Stephanie Fennelly, an advocate with the pro-life group the Wilberforce Project. “Any effort in our province to uphold that is protecting all of our rights.”

NDP Opposition critic Janis Irwin condemned the bill as an attempt to limit services such as abortion and contraception.

The bill’s defeat came a day after an Edmonton conference on the value and future of conscience rights in Canada.

Andrew Bennett, Canada’s former Ambassador for Religious Freedom, says the controversy around Bill 207 shows the challenges conscientious objectors face in public life today.

“We must reject a totalitarianism that seeks to establish socially correct and acceptable beliefs that treat any contrary view as deviant and something to be silenced,” Bennett said in a keynote speech at the Nov. 20 conference, themed Conscience: Naming Its Rights and Duties.

Williams said Bill 207 was tabled in reaction to an Ontario court ruling that forced health care providers to provide direct referrals for services such as assisted suicide and abortion, even when they conflict with their moral or religious beliefs. Many health care providers and advocates, including the Christian Medical and Dental Society, felt the decision restricted the moral convictions of health care workers.

Currently, physicians in Alberta who conscientiously object do not have to provide a direct referral to another physician, but must provide information to patients who wish to access the services.

For guest speaker Dr. Christina Lamb, a bioethicist and professor with the University of Alberta, the right of conscientious objection is fundamental to the health care industry.

“On a daily basis health care practitioners face moral dilemmas,” said Lamb. “The ethics that guide our practice do protect conscience in some capacity. But the current context right now isn’t reflecting that.”

Lamb believes this right is being challenged today by the Ontario decision, the rejection of Bill 207 and a changing understanding of what conscience rights physicians and nurses really have.

“Health care is now adopting much more of a business model approach,” she said. “We have this language of health care as a service rather than a moral endeavour, and patients have the public authority to demand whatever they want and desire of health care professionals. A private conscience is not respected as much, because by and large it’s being separated from the care we provide.”

(Grandin Media)

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