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Groups make last ditch effort to protect physician’s conscience rights

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

02/11/2015

OTTAWA (CCN) — The Supreme Court of Canada’s Feb. 6 decision striking down laws against physician assisted suicide have added new urgency to groups fighting to protect physicians’ conscience rights.

“The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada today, to legalize physician assisted suicide, places in peril the religious and conscience rights of physicians who will be compelled under the Ontario Physicians’ directive to comply with requests for assisted suicide,” said REAL Women of Canada in a news release. “We are at a crisis point today and it is essential that we take action on this situation.”

On Feb. 8, the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Toronto Catholic Doctors’ Guild and the Canadian Bioethics Institute hosted a webinar posted on YouTube to inform Canadians about the debate.

There are only some of the pro-family and pro-life groups who warn a proposed policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) will seriously infringe on physicians’ conscience rights.

The CPSO has given a Feb. 20 deadline for input into the policy that would force physicians to refer patients for morally problematic procedures such as abortion and euthanasia should it become legal in Canada. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan (CSSS) is also considering even more draconian changes to its policy, with a deadline of March 6 for public input.

The Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) Canada has been working closely with the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies (CFCPS) in rallying opposition to the proposed changes.

“The proposed policy demands that doctors refer for, and in some cases actually perform, procedures like birth control, abortion and even euthanasia,” said CMDS Canada executive director Larry Worthen. “Physicians would have to perform these procedures when the regulator (CPSO) considers them to be ‘urgent or otherwise necessary to prevent imminent harm, suffering, and/or deterioration.’ ”

“This wording suggests a very broad and subjective requirement that can be open to abuse,” he warned. “Doctors who cannot participate due to deeply held moral or religious commitments will be vulnerable to punishment from the regulator, even though their fundamental freedom of conscience and religion is guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

“This is a form of discrimination,” Worthen said.

The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) slammed CPSO’s proposed policy changes in a strongly worded statement issued Feb. 4.

COLF warned the policy change “would be devastating for Ontario doctors who seek to inform their consciences by their faith” and who may be forced to either leave the province or abandon the practice of medicine.

“These implications would also be disturbing for many patients who want to be treated by physicians who share their vision of the human person,” COLF said.

The CPSO policy would “replace the supremacy of conscience with that of a self-appointed authority functioning outside the sphere of its competence,” said the pro-life, pro-family organization, which is co-sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council.

COLF highlighted the fact that the medical establishment supported practices such as lobotomies that have since been “repudiated.”

Alliance for Life Ontario, a coalition of 55 educational pro-life groups in the province, in in its submission to CPSCO released to the public Feb. 5, said doctors were being bullied to adhere to a “procedure on demand mentality.”

“Medical professionals who disapprove certain ‘procedures’ for varying reasons cannot be forced into being part of medical killing whether that be induced abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia or prescribing abortifacient contraceptives even by referral,” said Alliance for Life Ontario. “There are ways to accommodate both patient and doctor, and pressuring good physicians with religious, ethical or moral objections out of health care is not one of them.”

Worthen pointed out that on a practical level referral for abortion has been a non-issue for many years since patients can self-refer for an abortion.

“Most physicians I know who have moral concerns with abortion are able to support the patient through their decision-making process and provide necessary information, but are not comfortable referring for or performing abortions,” he asked. “Why make this a requirement now?”

“It is especially concerning given the possibility of the legalization of euthanasia,” he said. “Many physicians have a moral and ethical problem with assisted suicide. Do we want to be forced to refer or even provide services like these by the CPSO?”

CMDS Canada has produced a video featuring five doctors who speak on the threat to conscience rights and to medicine of the proposed policy changes. It is available at their website http://www.cmdscanada.org along with links to help people give their input to the CPSO before the Feb. 20 deadline, as well as to the CPSS before the March 6 deadline.

However, Gerry Chipeur, a constitutional lawyer who acted as legal counsel for the Christian Legal Fellowship in its intervention in the Carter decision, said the Supreme Court of Canada in Carter has made a clear statement on the conscience and religious freedom rights of doctors.

“That means physicians must be accommodated,” Chipeur said. “There is no precedent in history that would support what the colleges are doing in Saskatchewan and Ontario.”

“If they (the colleges) are listening they will take this as a message to them to stop persecuting religious physicians on the basis of their conscience,” Chipeur said, predicting neither college’s policy would withstand a court challenge.

Chipeur said conscience and religious freedom rights “include referrals — any participation whatsoever.”

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