july2014cartoonOn June 24, Joan Chand’oiseau saw a sign at the front desk of the Westglen Medical Centre in Calgary: “The physician on duty today will not prescribe the birth control pill.” The sign, put up only when Dr. Chantal Barry is the sole physician at the clinic, so offended the would-be birth-controller that she has since made the good doctor’s principled objection her casus belli for a modern-day, social-media crusade. The apparent slight against Chand’oiseau has now garnered national attention, with political candidates dutifully – if pitifully – conforming to the conventional wisdom: that some wrong has been done, and some remedy must be made.

But let us dare to pose the obvious but untimely questions – those questions which the media mob now hounding Dr. Barry never thought to ask itself: why should Dr. Barry be vilified and attacked for simply following the dictates of her conscience? Why should she be treated like a criminal when no crime was committed? And why should she be compelled, possibly with the full force of the state, to violate her most deeply held beliefs? The two trivial answers – which would emerge from the mouths of the mob without any interference from their minds – are that Chand’oiseau was, in some indeterminate way, “denied health care” by Dr. Barry and that, by means of this denial, the former’s feelings were offended.

The first thing to notice, in this strange pair of excuses, is their total incompatibility. No one is arguing that Dr. Barry was, in any way, derelict of her “duty of care” as a physician; nor can anyone show that Chand’oiseau was unable to easily find another doctor to prescribe her the contraceptives she sought. And yet, the sacrosanct pall of necessary medical treatment is erroneously invoked to cover a prescription for contraception – as if fertility were a chronic condition which afflicted young women, a condition alleviated only with a robust regimen of powerful drugs. But, of course, fertility is not a disease, and no doctor ever has a medical obligation to keep women sterile. Although Chand’oiseau’s complaint is couched in the language of “health care,” if there were, in fact, any real denial of appropriate medical care, Dr. Barry would have already had her medical license revoked.

Instead, Chand’oiseau’s real grievance consists in being confronted with the exercise of Dr. Barry’s freedom of conscience. By practicing medicine in accordance with her core beliefs, Dr. Barry left Chand’oiseau nursing hurt feelings; as she told CTV, the sign which so offended her contained an “overt judgment of my choices and my reproductive health.” In other words, Chand’oiseau is really seeking freedom from the conscience of others – and if Dr. Barry’s basic human rights must be deprived in the process, so be it. Thus, having committed neither a crime nor even the slightest of professional infractions, Dr. Barry is being maliciously prosecuted in the court of public opinion simply for invoking her right not to compromise her principles by providing a medically unnecessary prescription.

And so, because of a case of hurt feelings, premised on a fallacious conflation of contraception and health care, the laws and professional regulations which protect the freedom of conscience in Canada are being attacked as if they were being used to harbour a fugitive. Dr. Barry, however, is a fugitive only from the encroaching consensus of a loud, frothing, and unthinking group, which, along with mercurial monarch, is enemy of the law in every age. A tyrant is not the less dangerous because, in his more benevolent moods, he gives, to the public, ingratiating gifts, like free contraceptives, say. Similarly, as Abraham Lincoln so shrewdly observed, “there is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.” Arbitrary power – in the solitary singular of the king or the diffused plural of the crowd – is always a dangerous master. The law alone has been found to be a fit ruler for men; that austere Roman goddess, Iustitia, who offered a check both on blind chance and the cruel, endless cycles of vengeance, was the ideal, even in the age of emperors and triumvirates.

The freedom of law’s rule brings with it a perennial burden, and a perpetual temptation to abandon the work which it requires, that mollifying work which sees the public good beyond the blinders of each private, individual dispute. That on a Tuesday in June, Ms. Chand’oiseau could not make Dr. Barry write her a prescription which could be (and likely was) obtained elsewhere, with speed and ease, is no reason to weaken the sacred protections of conscience in Canadian society, to relax those “wise restrains which make us free.” But if the public finds, in this trivial case, cause to deprive Lady Justice of her blindfold and tamper with her impartial scales, then Dr. Barry will be the first victim of a terrible dereliction of a proud Canadian tradition of protecting the rights of conscience, but she will certainly not be the last.