Alberta private members bill to reopen debate on physician conscience rights

EDMONTON — Alberta politicians are to debate the role of conscience rights and the responsibilities of physicians asked to assist or advise on abortions, contraception or medically assisted deaths.

United Conservative backbencher Dan Williams is to introduce Thursday a private member’s bill to reassert the Charter-protected freedom of conscience and religion for health providers.

Williams says the bill is in response to an Appeal Court of Ontario ruling this spring.

Ontario’s high court affirmed a lower court ruling that found physicians who object on moral grounds to contentious issues like abortion must offer patients an “effective referral” to another health provider.

The court called it a fair compromise, but groups such as Canadian Physicians for Life say it is still an intolerable violation of their rights.

Currently, the College of Physicians of Surgeons of Alberta directs doctors who do not wish to provide these services to offer patients timely access to either a member or a service that can.

Williams says his bill is meant to simply affirm Charter rights. But the Opposition NDP said the bill is trophy legislation for the party’s social conservative wing and a back-door attempt to limit access to services like abortion.

Williams, the member for Peace River, said that is “absolutely not” the case.

“This legislation is intended only to protect the Charter rights that individuals have and access to all these (medical) services will continue afterwards as before — no changes,” Williams said Wednesday.

Williams said he has consulted widely with doctors and has heard a lot of concern about “moral distress.”

“There is a real concern. 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,” he said.

“They feel it’s easier for them to continue practising if they have this (Charter affirmed) certainty.”

NDP health critic David Shepherd said the former NDP government didn’t hear from doctors concerned about conscience rights but it did hear from patients struggling to gain such rights to medical treatment.

Shepherd and Janis Irwin, the critic for women’s issues, said they suspect the bill may have a hidden agenda and noted that Williams attended an anti-abortion March for Life rally at the legislature in May.

“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,” said Shepherd.

“And (Premier Jason Kenney) has said that this is something his government would not do.”

Kenney, a Catholic, has said his government would not legislate on judicially settled hot button issues like abortion.

Williams is a member of Kenney’s United Conservative caucus but, given he is not in cabinet, is not part of the UCP government.

Without government backing, private members bills face a much steeper and difficult climb to get through multiple stages of debate to become law.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2019.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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