Updated: Alberta MLA moves to protect conscience rights of health-care professionals

07 November 2019

Appears in: Uncategorized

An Alberta MLA is hoping to reaffirm the rights of health practitioners in the province who have moral objections to practices like medical assistance in dying (MAiD), abortion and other contentious procedures.

Dan Williams, MLA for Peace River (UCP), introduced Bill 207, the Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act, in the legislative assembly on Nov. 7.

Williams said the private member’s bill will ensure health practitioners — and organizations — can conscientiously decline a procedure without worry that they would be penalized or, at worst, lose their job.

“Individuals shouldn’t have to choose between their most deeply-held moral convictions on the one side and their job on the other,” he said. “This bill is about working together with colleges, employers, and conscientious objectors so we can protect conscience for all Albertans.”

Williams has spoken with doctors, nurses and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta in preparing the bill. He said there is an overall support for legislation that protects the rights of practitioners but also ensures access to services continue.

It’s an important issue for Williams, noting that he wrote the bill in part as a response to a Court of Appeals for Ontario decision that ruled doctors must provide referrals for medical procedures even when those procedures clash with their religious and moral beliefs.

Catholic doctors in Alberta have sounded the alarm that the Ontario court ruling will set a precedent across the country, forcing them, and all doctors, to provide medical referrals for assisted suicide against their conscience — rights which are protected under the Charter of Rights of Freedoms.

Medical assistance in dying has been legal in Canada since 2016.

Dr. Mary Ellen Haggerty

The proposed legislation is needed to protect the basic rights of doctors and other health-care practitioners, said Mary Ellen Haggerty, president of the provincial St. Luke’s Physicians Guild of Alberta, which represents Catholic physicians.

“This issue is being threatened in other provinces, and if it’s threatened there, it’s liable to be threatened here,” said Haggerty, a family physician in Edmonton. “So we need protection legislation. Otherwise, we’re going to lose our conscience rights. Losing that right doesn’t do anything to protect the public. If doctors are working without a conscience, then what protection is there?

“It certainly could mean that some doctors have to fold up their practices. This kind of legislation is really necessary.”

Williams, a Roman Catholic, said his proposed legislation seeks to “create certainty” that the Charter rights of health-care professionals and organizations are upheld. The first fundamental freedom listed in the Charter is the freedom of conscience and religion.

“When someone becomes a doctor or health care provider, they don’t lose their Canadian citizenship. They don’t lose their Charter rights,” Williams said.

“There are many physicians concerned about their positions. As I spoke to health care providers across the province, they told me how they were really concerned about a growing pressure on conscience, freedom of thought and freedom of religion in Alberta and in the country.

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

The bill emphasizes that providers must be protected from any employment discrimination if they refuse to provide a health care service on religious or conscientious grounds.

The bill does not change the existing legal obligation of a physician who conscientiously objects to a procedure to inform patients of other options.

Covenant Health says the bill supports policies already in place to protect the rights of both patients and providers.

“While Bill 207 will not change the current service delivery model, it does provide a balanced framework for providers to exercise conscience without abandoning their patients,” Covenant Health said in a statement.

“We welcome legislation that aligns with the province’s current system and supports varied providers working collaboratively to ensure Albertans have access to the whole continuum of services.”

Williams expects critics will see his bill as an attempt to weaken access to controversial medical procedures, but that’s not the intent of the proposed legislation.

“This bill doesn’t in anyway limit access to any of these contentious services,” he said. “If it’s a service that’s provided by the province, it will continue afterward. But we want to make sure that while those services are being provided, we also respect those Charter rights of those providing health care to all of us.”

As a private member’s bill, Williams expects there will be a free vote in the legislature and he hopes there will be opposition support.

“I believe this is a non-partisan bill,” he said. “I don’t see this being something that is contentious or that reasonable Albertans would be against.”

However, that seems unlikely.

In question period, Janis Irwin, NDP critic for women’s and LGBTQ issues, said Williams’ bill is fundamentally about restricting access to abortion and that, if passed, it could potentially be used to deny health services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer patients.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro noted that laws in place already to protect all Albertans from discrimination.

A date for the second reading of the bill has yet to be determined.

In May, Saskatchewan Conservative MP David Anderson tabled a similar bill at the federal level to protect the conscience rights of health care professionals. The bill did not become law.