When lawmaker Dan Williams introduced Private Members’ Bill 207 in the Alberta Legislature on Thursday, it passed its first reading easily, receiving literally unanimous approval from United Conservative Party (UCP) legislators.
Technically the “private members’ bill” label means it is the work of a single legislator and not the Alberta government as a whole. However, the perfect lockstep unity of every single UCP voter sends a crystal-clear message about what the party stands for.
In brief, the bill stipulates that health care providers and organizations don’t have to provide services if they can argue that it violates their beliefs. While the bill specifies that “nothing in this Act derogates from a [provider’s] obligations to their patients, which may include informing individuals of options in respect of receiving a health care service,” referrals are very specifically listed as protected services that doctors cannot be compelled to provide:
“Conscientious beliefs” of a health care provider or a religious health care organization means the beliefs of the health care provider or religious health care organization that are protected as fundamental freedoms under section 2(a) of the Charter, including religious beliefs, moral and ethical values, and cultural traditions… “Health care service” means a professional service as defined in the Health Professions Act and includes the provision of a formal or informal referral in respect of a patient.
The relevant section of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms stipulates a person’s freedom of conscience and religion. In this case, however, Charter rights are being applied to organizations as well as individuals. This matters in a province where many hospitals are funded publicly by Alberta Health Services but owned by the Roman Catholic Church through Covenant Health, an organization governing more than 20 Alberta health facilities and led by the Catholic Bishops of Alberta. The group’s mission statement calls them “to continue the healing ministry of Jesus,” in part by “upholding the sacredness of life in all stages.”
If Bill 207 becomes law, the conscientious decision-making of thousands of Alberta patients and individual health-care experts could be railroaded by the decidedly non-expert ethical opinions of the Roman Catholic Church.
In addition to reproductive health services and assisted dying, advocates from the LGBTQ+ community are concerned that the bill could ultimately legalize anti-trans discrimination. The legislation leaves room for anti-trans doctors to either refuse treatment to trans patients or to treat them with substandard care that ignores their relevant health needs.
None of this could be treated as unprofessional conduct, since the proposed law also prevents professional regulatory boards — like, say, the College of Physicians and Services of Alberta (CPSA) or the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada — from penalizing health care providers for any belief-based refusal to provide a service, even services that constitute key professional obligations in their field. Their understanding of their own area of expertise takes a back seat to unscientific (often religion-based) moral objections.
In fact, the legislation goes so far as to demand that professional organizations dismiss complaints about a refusal to provide care if it’s rooted in “conscientious beliefs,” even if that refusal constitutes what would be recognized as discrimination or malpractice elsewhere in the field. They are even legally required to contact the complainant and explain that the objectionable, potentially abusive behavior was permissible as part of the provider’s legally-protected conscience rights.
The bill will move forward into second and third readings, which involve more rigorous debate and discussion for future votes; its future is not yet secure, and it may well be defeated on further examination. Perhaps.
But as legislators from the NDP Opposition have observed, it’s disturbing to think that Alberta legislators think patients’ care rights are a subject for debate at all.
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