Laying Down the Lawton Andrew Lawton

Laying Down the Lawton Andrew Lawton

If you want to practice medicine, leave your beliefs at the door.

That’s the key takeaway from a May decision by the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruling that conscience rights for healthcare practitioners effectively don’t exist. At least not when doctors are anywhere but in their own homes with the doors locked and the curtains drawn.

That isn’t so much of an exaggeration given the headway being made by those who’ve already succeeded at stripping doctors of their right to conscientiously object to various procedures and treatments. The crusaders against these doctors seem to think moral values are only copacetic when they’re confined to the closet.

In defending its restrictive policy, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario argued that “while physicians are free to subscribe to their beliefs, the freedom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them,” according to the court’s decision.

I can’t disagree with this in theory. For example, someone would be well within the law to think about robbing a bank, but would run into trouble were he to actually try it. However, when we’re talking about the matters of conscience that exist in practice, the college seems to expect doctors who believe robbing a bank is wrong to help people crack the vault regardless.

The unanimous ruling upholds a requirement imposed by the college that physicians must provide an “effective referral” to patients seeking medical services like abortion, assisted death or birth control. Doctors who don’t comply can be sanctioned by the college.

While doctors are not required to provide any of these things themselves, they must connect patients with a colleague who will. The college views this as a reasonable middle ground, but the reality is that physicians who object to the services in question believe that providing a referral is tantamount to complicity in the process. Ethicists and theologians who testified during the trial agreed.

The court’s decision acknowledged that the case’s appellants “all have a sincere religious belief that human life is sacred, that abortion and (medical assistance in dying) are sinful.” But, this acknowledgement by the court was still trumped by the notion that a patient has a right to access the services in a way that supersedes a doctor’s ability to find it objectionable.

This is one of those “reasonable limits” from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms hard at work.

This case will almost certainly go to the Supreme Court of Canada, though I wouldn’t expect that to make much of a difference given how the country’s top court ruled in the Trinity Western University case, which was also rooted in a religious freedom argument.

Shameful as this decision is, it’s not at all surprising as the country’s judiciary continues to value artificial rights above those laid out so plainly in the constitution. The only real hope would be for political intervention, but I won’t hold my breath for that either.

It’s worth noting that both Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott, while they were vying for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, said in a debate I hosted on 980 CFPL that they would defend conscience rights for physicians.

At the same time, it’s hard to imagine anyone in this government would wish to even wade, let alone dive, into this culture war, significant as it is.

The media has framed this debate as being about the rights of religious doctors versus the rights of patients. I take the broader view that standing up for the religious freedom of one group is ensuring the freedom is alive for everyone else.

Regretfully, the court fell into the false dichotomy of doctors being pitted against patients. Most revealing of that fact was this line:

“As members of a regulated and publicly-funded profession, (doctors) are subject to requirements that focus on the public interest, rather than their interests,” the decision reads.

Why are doctors’ interests at odds with the public interest when issues of morality are concerned?

There’s a fundamental wrongness to a policy denying a doctor of faith the right to practice in accordance with their faith. The unintended consequences of this decision may well threaten the province’s healthcare system. Doctors are already in short supply in Ontario and elsewhere in the country. Ontario is now telling Christian doctors they aren’t wanted or needed. There’s already an exodus of new doctors to the United States for financial reasons. We can now add moral reasons to the list.

In Ontario, you get your cross or your stethoscope, but not both.