What would happen if our laws reflected and applied the Golden Rule of doing unto others what we want done unto ourselves?
No person wants to be forced, coerced or even pressured into doing what she or he believes to be wrong. Someone applying the Golden Rule would say: “I myself do not want the law to force me to do what I believe to be wrong, therefore I support the rights and freedoms of other people not to be coerced into doing what they believe to be wrong.”
Applying the Golden Rule would result in laws and governments respecting the right of citizens to honour their deepest convictions, and not forcing people to do what they believe to be wrong.
Sadly, a Golden Rule attitude is severely lacking in Canada when it comes to respecting the freedom of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists not to participate in work that violates their conscience. Some people who otherwise support a free society, with maximum freedom for individuals, suddenly turn into big-government statists when it comes to health care. They argue that doctors should be compelled to provide any requested treatment, even if the doctor in question believes that assisted suicide, as just one example, is wrong.
Pseudo-libertarians justify violating the conscience of doctors based on the “right” of patients to have whatever they want, without inconvenience. But no such “right” exists. A right to force others to do what we want is not compatible with a free society in which people freely take on – or decline – various jobs.
Apart from protecting the individual’s freedom not to do what she believes to be wrong, it is important to protect the integrity of physicians. Physicians have taken the Hippocratic Oath and pledged never to harm, for the sake of their patients and for society in general. Certainly, there is disagreement about what constitutes harm, but is it not wrong to force someone to do what she deeply believes is wrong? Physicians are trained professionals who do not leave their character at the door of the exam room, even if they are paid from the public purse. As “gate-keepers” of our healthcare system, we expect physicians to act on current knowledge, and on their experience and judgement and, yes, their moral thought, however that is informed. A patient can trust her care to a physician with moral integrity, whereas a physician who abandons his deepest convictions under pressure is not trustworthy.
Forcing someone to do something that they believe to be wrong is a hallmark of totalitarian states. In free and democratic societies, the Constitution protects citizens from government coercion to participate in acts which they believe are unconscionable. This is why the Charterdescribes freedom of conscience and religion as “fundamental,” and mentions this freedom ahead of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
When a democracy is at war, pacifists who oppose killing another human being will not be required by government to serve on the front lines and shoot at foreign troops. A democracy can continue with its war efforts without requiring every citizen to be willing to kill enemy soldiers.
Some argue that a reasonable compromise can be achieved by allowing doctors the freedom of not assisting someone to commit suicide, but still requiring doctors to refer the patient to another doctor. It is interesting to note that the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in both Ontario and Alberta prohibit doctors from performing female genital mutilation (FGM) and from referring for this medical service. The colleges understand that if it’s wrong to remove portions of a young girl’s genitalia, then it’s also wrong to refer her to another doctor who will. The colleges view providing a referral as active participation. Therefore, requiring doctors to refer for a service they believe to be wrong is to violate the conscience of doctors.
In Alberta, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party has killed a private member’s bill that would have enshrined “freedom of conscience and religion” – protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – for Alberta’s health care providers.
UCP MLAs Nathan Neudorf, Jeremy Nixon, Nate Horner, and R.J. Sigurdson joined NDP Members of the Legislative Assembly in voting to kill Bill 207, at a Committee vote.
Michaela Glasgo and Joseph Schow were the only MLAs on the Committee to support Bill 207, which would have protected doctors from being required to assist their patients in committing suicide, as one example of a medical service that some doctors cannot in good conscience provide.