On Nov. 21, an Alberta legislative committee recommended that Bill 207, a private member’s bill that would, if passed, protect the conscience rights of healthcare workers, not be voted upon by the full legislature.
MLA Dan Williams (UCP, Peace River) introduced Bill 207, the Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act, which upholds the Charter rights of health care providers to refuse to perform, advise, assist in or refer any “health care service” to which they conscientiously object such as abortion, contraception, or euthanasia. The bill as written defines “health care service” to include the provision of informal and formal referrals. The objections could be for personal or religious beliefs.
Williams said he tabled in the bill following an Ontario Court of Appeal decision in May that abrogated the conscience rights of health care workers in that province. The Ontario court requires doctors in that province to provide “an effective referral” if they will not themselves carry out a procedure.
Williams said that he talked to doctors who said they increasingly find it difficult to practice medicine in Alberta and could be forced to choose between continuing their careers or following their conscience.
Federal Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill) spoke out against Bill 207, saying it was not needed. “Have there been any cases where Alberta physicians have had their conscience rights violated? Doesn’t existing practice already cover this,” she asked in a tweet, while congratulating UCP MLAs who opposed the bill.
Current Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons (ACPS) policy respects conscience rights up to a point: it requires doctors who will not carry out procedures to which they are morally opposed to refer patients to a physician who will or provide information so the patient can find out where to access the procedure.
Supporters of groups such as Campaign Life Coalition and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition – both of which launched petitions in favour of Bill 207 — contacted committee members to encourage them to allow Bill 207 to be voted upon by the full legislature.
In an 8-2 vote, the standing committee on private member’s bills, in which Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party had a majority, recommended Bill 207 not be considered for second reading and have a chance to become law.
UCP members Michaela Glasgo and Joseph Schow voted for the bill, while UCP MLAs Nate Horner, Nathan Neudorf, Jeremy Nixon, and R.J. Sigurdson, and NDP MLAs Janis Irwin, Chris Nielson, Rakhi Pancholi, and Lori Sigurdson voted against it.
Kenny was silent on the bill but his Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said it thought it was redundant because the ACPS claims to respect conscience rights and that he did not want to reopen the abortion issue or restrict access to abortion, which he claimed the bill would do. Health Minister Tyler Shandro said he was open to supporting the bill if it could be proven it did not unduly restrict access to abortion. Shandro voted for Bill 207 at first reading before it headed to committee.
The committee heard from opponents of the bill, including Trans Equality Society of Alberta, and Dying with Dignity Canada, as well as physicians Jillian Ratti. They raised the specter of women not being able to access abortion or terminally ill patients being denied euthanasia. Ratti said the bill “is motivated by anti-abortion groups, some of which are likely foreign-funded.” She claimed the campaign for conscience rights was a “cynical” attempt to reopen the abortion issue, not a way to protect doctors and nurses in the province. Bradley Peter, a Dying with Dignity board member, said Albertans would not be able to find a doctor to kill them if the bill passed.
Dr. Kiely Williams spoke in favour of the bill, saying many health care professionals, especially those in rural Alberta, feel they must choose between leaving the province to practice medicine or quitting their jobs.
Williams said before the standing committee and in a statement when he tabled the bill, that it was about protecting the conscience rights of doctors, not denying access.
Most of the opposition focused on the possibility that self-identified transgender and homosexual patients would be discriminated against by doctors who would refuse to treat them because of their claimed sexual orientation or gender identity. When Janis Irwin, the NDP’s critic for women and LGBQT issues asked Williams how many doctors he talked to were gay or trans, Williams said he did not make it a habit to ask stakeholders about their sexuality or identity.
Once the committee voted against the bill, Irwin said, “it’s a bit bittersweet because we really shouldn’t have been having this conversation in 2019.”
UCP MLA Glasgo said on Facebook afterward she would continue to support the bill and condemned the opposition’s campaign against Bill 207: “I do find it unfortunate that some have attempted to fear monger on conscience rights.”
Several doctors’ groups opposed Bill 207. Alberta Medical Association president Christine Molnar said in a letter to provincial Health Minister Shandro that “the bill may have unintended consequences in limiting patient access to services.”
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta expressed concern with the original wording of the bill, but Williams worked with the CPSA on amendments to make the wording align with the college’s existing conscience protections. Williams read a statement from the college endorsing the changes: “The new wording is in greater alignment with our Standard of Practice. Based on the new wording, Bill 207 would not change how CPSA functions as a regulator,” the CPSA statement said. Williams said: “My intention with offering these amendments is a genuine olive branch, a genuine attempt to say ‘the purpose of this bill is to protect conscience rights, and in no way has any desire to limit access.”
Glasgo noted that former Supreme Court of Canada justice John Major has stated that Bill 207 “is valid legislation that embraces the Charter rather than breaches it.”
NDP leader Rachel Notley said that the private member’s bill violated Kenney’s election promise not reopen the abortion issue and University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas said Kenney’s silence on the bill represented a “broken promise.”
CLC national president Jeff Gunnarson said that private member’s bills are not introduced by the premier or cabinet and thus Kenney is maintaining his promise not to reopen the issue. “This is not a reproductive rights issue,” Gunnarson told The Interim, “it is a Charter issue and it is shameful that eight members of the standing committee on private member’s bills would deny both the right of the legislature to debate this issue and the right of doctors to practice medicine while following their conscience.”
It is possible that the Alberta legislature could ignore the committee’s recommendation. A vote on accepting the recommendation was scheduled for after The Interimwent to press.
Bill 207 was passed on first reading by vote of 36-15 along party lines, with UCP members present voting for it and the NDP against.