News Item: A group of Roman Catholic operating room nurses are facing a moral dilemma over performing abortion duties, arising from their transfer from St. Joseph’s General Hospital to Thunder Bay Regional Hospital.
– Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal, June 6, 1997
The practice of medicine today poses some of the most controversial moral dilemmas to health care providers. Social, legal and medical developments involving abortion, contraception, euthanasia, withdrawal of feeding, assisted suicide, blood transfusions, fertility treatments, organ transplants, and medical experimentation invariably place the health care worker on the front line of moral choices.
In the current wave of restructuring health care in the province of Ontario, as well as the rest of Canada, situations like those experienced by nurses in Thunder Bay will become more common.
Whereas the United Kingdom, New Zealand and 44 American states presently have some kind of statutory protection for conscientious objection, no such legislation exists in Canada.
More conflicts on horizon
It is not hard to imagine increasingly more complex situations where the valid exercise of conscience may be limited. As the range of medical technologies continues to expand, the number of medical services involving potentially serious conflicts of conscience is certain to increase.
In an age when the absence of legal prohibition is used as a reason to oblige health care workers to assist in morally objectionable procedures, legislation should be enacted to restrain persons in authority who demonstrate contempt for the valid exercise of individual conscience by health care workers. It would indeed be ironic for advocates of “choice” to oppose legislation which would instill such protections from intimidation or suppression of one’s conscience. Unfortunately, such legislation would not prevent morally objectionable medical procedures from taking place. However, such legislation would go some way in protecting health care workers by preventing coercion by direct or implied threats of dismissal, disciplinary action, or limitation of career opportunities.
Beliefs at the workplace
Opponents to such a measure may argue that hospital administrators require the flexibility to transfer staff into various departments without having to inquire as to a particular health care worker’s conscientious beliefs. However, the Supreme Court of Canada has already ruled that religious beliefs and practices must be accommodated in the workplace, unless undue hardship results:
The duty resting on an employer to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of employees extends to require an employer to take reasonable measures short of undue hardship … The use of the term “undue” infers that some hardship is acceptable; it is only “undue” hardship that satisfies this test … However, more than minor inconvenience must be shown before the complainant’s right to accommodation can be defeated. The employer must establish that actual interference with the rights of other employees, which is not trivial but substantial, will result from the adoption of the accommodating measures … Minor interference or inconvenience is the price to be paid for religious freedom in a multi-cultural society.
– The Honourable Mr. Justice John Sopinka,,in Central Okanagan School District No. 23 vs. Renaud  2 S.C.R. 970
The Renaud case involved a Seventh Day Adventist school custodian, who according to his faith, could not work on Fridays after sundown. Despite adverse rulings from lower courts, the Supreme Court of Canada found that neither the employer nor his union had discharged its duty to accommodate his religious beliefs by offering alternate work arrangements. In order to make available the protection discussed by our highest court to the conscientious health care workers, it is urged that legislators give serious consideration to the introduction of conscience legislation in Canada.