Canada may have staved off the specter of a Conservative government in the recent federal election, ensuring the continued protection of reproductive rights across the country. But it’s cold comfort for concerned parties in Alberta, where Jason Kenney’s party stands poised to roll back abortion access for the entire province.
Anti-abortion group The Wilberforce Project (a sly rebranding of the much more directly-named “Pro-Life Alberta”) predicted “the most pro-life legislature in decades” would follow a United Conservative Party (UCP) win at the polls in April of this year. Alberta’s electorate delivered.
Now, with those legislators in place, and with the fate of federal abortion law effectively decided by October’s election, Peace River MLA Dan Williams plans to introduce a bill concerning physicians’ “conscience rights” to refuse to refer patients seeking contraceptives, abortion, or medically assisted dying.
Williams, who was in the news this past May for attending a March for Life rally at the provincial legislature, calls the bill a response to a ruling in Ontario’s appellate court this past spring. The court, with the support of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), found that physicians have a duty to balance their conscience rights against patients’ needs by providing referrals for services they feel morally or religiously compelled to refuse to perform.
While religious medical associations such as the Christian Medical and Dental Association or the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies insist that Canadian patients would not be harmed by the absence of a referral, the Appeals Court of Ontario disagreed, particularly since the medical issues typically affected constitute “the most intimate and urgent medical advice and care”:
It is impossible to conceive of more private, emotional, or challenging issues for any patient. Given the importance of family physicians as ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘patient navigators’ in the health-care system, there is compelling evidence that patients will suffer harm in the absence of an effective referral. [Furthermore,] the appellants have no common law, proprietary, or constitutional right to practise medicine.
CPSO expert witnesses noted that not all medical career paths involve the sorts of reproductive health and end-of-life care that typically results in conscience conflicts and invited troubled physicians to pivot to one of those fields.
For Williams and his cadre of “pro-life” MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly), though, this compromise fails to provide sufficient protection to doctors. According to his interpretation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, physicians have every right to remain physicians even when they refuse to provide patient care — even care that pertains directly to their area of specialization.
How do they possibly justify this approach to the situation? Why, by accusing others of being intolerant of their intolerance, of course!
This legislation is intended only to protect the Charter rights that individuals [as doctors] have… They feel as though within the province, particularly in health care, but in our country at large across all professions and in public, there is an attack on conscientious belief and a diversity of views. They feel it’s easier for them to continue practising if they have this [Charter-affirmed] certainty.
NDP health critic David Shepherd finds this claim suspicious. He reports that the previous NDP government received no complaints from doctors concerned that their consciences were being attacked. However, his government frequently spoke to patients concerned about their ability to access legal, medically-accepted treatment that their individual doctors deemed morally impermissible.
Given Williams’ history with the anti-abortion movement, Shepherd suspects the bill is a strategic maneuver to introduce “pro-life” policy concerns into the provincial legislature as appropriate subjects of debate.
I can’t see this being anything other than another backdoor attempt to bring forward legislation specifically looking at abortion, reproductive services, perhaps questions around gender and diverse communities that are seeking treatment from medical doctors.
Premier Kenney has said categorically that his government has no plans to reopen the abortion debate. However, because Williams is not a member of Kenney’s cabinet despite his UCP affiliation, there’s room to argue that, technically, he is not part of the current government.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Thanks to Lorne for the link)