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 the 10 committee members voted against the bill’s second reading, including some of Wiliams’ UCP colleagues.
Neither Premier Jason Kenney and nor Health Minister Tyler Shandro had voiced support for the bill.
Nevertheless, Williams says he 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 mostly deeply held beliefs.”
Williams did not respond to a request for further comment.
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, who attended a recent conference in support of conscience rights. “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 such services as abortion and contraception.
During the Nov. 21 committee meeting, Calgary family physician Jillian Ratti argued that the bill was a veiled attempt to reopen the debate on abortion laws in Canada.
Despite its defeat, Bill 207 has helped spark a renewed conversation on conscience among Edmonton’s Catholic community. It was stopped the day after an Edmonton conference on the value and future of conscience rights in Canada.
Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first and only 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 conference.
“(Former prime minister) Pierre Trudeau once said that a country is judged by how it treats its minorities. We could not have envisioned back then that faithful Christians and faithful orthodox Jews who have a certain understanding of the human person would be put in moral jeopardy. And we have a situation today where physicians in particular are being put in moral jeopardy by these laws.”
Williams said his 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 dying 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 was unreasonable and restricted the moral convictions of many 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.”
Lamb says much of the rhetoric in Canada now resembles the laws in Sweden, where physicians are legally prohibited from objecting to providing services such as abortion.
“If you look at these countries where the litmus test for morality is in the public domain, it’s interesting to compare that to what many academic bioethicists in Canada are saying,” she said. “Because they are heavily influenced by this same mentality of the public authority of conscience.”
Theresa Zolner, an Edmonton-based psychologist who attended the conference, agrees that the current debate over conscience rights is placing the state as the arbiter of morality, and people’s private beliefs are under threat because of that.
“Our government is secular, but our society is not. It’s diverse, with many different beliefs and faiths,” said Zolner. “An increased secularism and avoidance of personal conscience is not the way to go. What ultimately happens is the state becomes the arbiter of what’s OK, and our conscience is then guided by the state. Health care now has to be a representative of this state conscience rather than personal conscience.
“There must be a way to allow people to access all services but not force every person in the health care system to provide every single service.”
Bennett believes a truly pluralistic society requires all people to stand up fully for their conscience beliefs. The controversy around legislation like Bill 207 raises many challenges for physicians, but it also gives Catholics an opportunity to consider how they live out their baptismal calling.
“Our present cultural moment demands that we give very serious consideration to our vocation as Christians,” said Bennett. “Living as Christians today and witnessing to our faith and moral convictions is no easier for us than the first disciples. But our faith calls us into the public square to champion what we believe to be true. Our conscience is essential to our humanity, our reason and our life in Christ.”