Win in Alberta for doctors’ conscience rights

  • January 16, 2024

Pro-life organizations are celebrating the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta’s (CPSA) decision not to impose an “effective referral” mandate that would have forced health practitioners to violate conscience rights to facilitate objectionable procedures like assisted suicide or abortion.

“Forcing a doctor to make an ‘effective referral’ is to force them to participate in a procedure against their medical judgment and their conscience,” said Pete Baklinski, communications director of Campaign Life Coalition. “In essence, many doctors of conscience see making an effective referral as them being the first domino in a series of events that result in what they view as a negative outcome for their patient.”

The CPSA originally planned to insert an “effective referral” diktat in its Conscientious Objection standards of practice. However, there was backlash from Alberta doctors during the consultation period, with some outright warning the CPSA they would practice their profession in another province if such a plan was put in place.

CPSA published the following message on its website: “Based on initial feedback received, the term ‘effective referral’ will be removed from the Conscientious Objection standard. Those that provide feedback during the consultation period will be consulted again during the re-consultation phase and see additional edits before final approval.”

Nicole Scheidl, the executive director of Canadian Physicians for Life, welcomed this news as “a big win.” She wrote in an email that if the CPSA went ahead with its planned mandate, it would have violated the Criminal Code of Canada. 

“When euthanasia was made legal in Canada both the courts and the government assured physicians and other health-care professionals that they would not be forced to participate,” wrote Scheidl. “The carveout in the criminal code which makes euthanasia not homicide says specifically: ‘For greater certainty, nothing in this section compels an individual to provide or assist in providing medical assistance in dying.’

“While this seems clear, professional governing bodies (like the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario) have been pushing physicians to become complicit by forcing them to make ‘effective referrals,’ continued Scheidl. “Many physicians left Ontario or stopped practising family medicine in response to this practice standard from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.”

Though satisfied with this development, Campaign Life called on Alberta Premier Danielle Smith to take the next step and pass legislation that further protects the prairie province’s health-care workers.

The organization particularly endorses one of the policy resolutions (No.16) passed by United Conservative Party (UCP) members during their annual general meeting this past November. The proposal would protect “Alberta physicians from undue third-party interference” and “neither compel physicians to prescribe treatments nor prohibit them from prescribing treatments.”

Meanwhile, Scheidl stated that the work continues for she and her Canadian Physicians for Life colleagues in campaigning against “effective referrals,” particularly with medical assistance in dying about to be opened up to those suffering from mental illness.

“Many physicians are so busy with taking care of their patients that they are not aware of the (upcoming) expansion of euthanasia to those who are not near death and whose sole underlying criteria is mental illness,” wrote Scheidl. “This means that many of their patients qualify under the expanded rules, and they will be forced to participate through effective referral. It is also important to note that patients suffer when physicians leave practice early or restrict the type of practice they do because they are committed to life-affirming care.”

Unless there is a last-minute delay, and the federal government signaled the possibility before Christmas, assisted suicide for individuals solely experiencing mental illness will become legal on March 17. 

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