Christian doctors’ group says new college policy infringes on freedom of conscience

March 24, 2015
Lauren Pelley
Displayed with permission from Toronto Star

With physician-assisted suicide on the horizon, the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada is asking the Ontario Superior Court to declare that a new regulatory policy infringes upon doctors’ freedom of conscience.

The society, which represents close to 1,700 members, filed documents in court on Friday regarding the CPSO’s Professional Obligations and Human Rights policy that was announced on March 6. The policy means doctors who refuse to refer patients for services on religious and moral grounds, including abortions, could face discipline from their regulating body.

“Our big concern is euthanasia, which is right around the corner,” said Larry Worthen, CMDS executive director.

“It will be legal in one form or another sometime next year, and so our members are really concerned because this policy will also really involve euthanasia as well. That will impact numerous physicians, in numerous specialties.”

The application, also supported by the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians and several individual doctors, asks the court to declare that portions of the policy breach sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The CPSO said they will “vigorously defend” the policy.

“We believe the policy strikes the appropriate balance between physicians’ Charter rights, their professional and ethical obligations and the expectations of the public,” the college said in a statement.

The policy does not require physicians to perform procedures or provide treatments to which they object on religious grounds, except during a medical emergency, the statement noted.

“For us, referral is a facilitation,” Worthen said. He suggested that self-referrals by patients currently work well for issues like abortion.

At Queen’s Park, Health Minister Eric Hoskins said the CPSO’s position is a compromise balancing the rights of doctors with religious or moral beliefs under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with patients’ rights to prompt referrals.

“They’ve been given an alternative,” Hoskins told reporters. “None of this is forcing anything . . . all that’s required of them is providing timely access to another health care professional.”

A physician should never be in a position where they are restricting services to their patients, he added.

The CPSO said the policy was developed through a rigorous review process, which included two public consultations, and the College also commissioned a public online poll.

The poll found 87 per cent of surveyed Ontarians believe physicians who object to providing care on moral or religious grounds should be required to make or co-ordinate the referral.

University of Toronto bioethicist Kerry Bowman supports the College’s position and doesn’t think that court protection for the CMDS and other physicians can be justified.

“The health care system exists for the Canadian public, and the rights of the Canadian public are what need to go first on this one,” he said.

But there will be challenges ahead with a new law governing physician-assisted suicide in the works, Bowman said.

“I’m wondering if we’re going to hear from other religious groups as well — and we may,” he said.

Worthen said the CMDS now has 30 days to file an affidavit outlining how the applicants’ concerns are consistent with their conscience and beliefs, but he hopes the court challenge won’t go much further.

“I’m hopeful we can get a face-to-face meeting (with the CPSO) to explain our position,” he said.

With files from Rob Ferguson and Theresa Boyle

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