Paul Tuns:

On Oct. 5, Kelly Block’s private member’s bill, Bill C-230, The Protection of Freedom of Conscience Act, was defeated in a 203-115 vote. Every Conservative MP present for the vote, including leader Pierre Poilievre, voted for the bill, along with independent MP Kevin Vuong (Spadina-Fort York). All present Liberal, NDP, Bloc, and Green MPs voted against the bill. 

During debate on Sept. 29, Block explained the importance of C-230: “Protecting individuals from coercion … is not foreign to the Criminal Code of Canada, as found in section 425. If Parliament can enshrine criminal penalties for employers for coercing employees not to form a union, then surely we can provide similar protection for medical professionals when dealing with conscience protections.” She concluded, “With Bill C-230, I have put forward comprehensive yet simple legislation that is important to medical professionals from coast to coast. I would welcome a committee’s examination of it, as well as any recommendations to improve it.” If passed in second reading, the bill, which sought to make it a crime to intimidate, fire, or refuse to hire medical professionals due to their conscientious refusal to participate in euthanasia and assisted suicide, would have been studied in committee.

During the debate on Sept. 29, Mark Gerretsen, Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, claimed to support conscience rights, insisted that current law took conscience rights into account, and explained he could not support C-230 by insisting “it is not evident that an additional specific offence is required to protect conscience rights.” The Liberal government has long argued that nothing in the euthanasia legislation requires health care workers to violate their conscience, ignoring that absent Criminal Code protections, the reality is that the medical professional bodies for physicians, nurses, and pharmacists in all provinces require medical professionals that cannot participate directly in immoral practices such as abortion or euthanasia to provide an “effective referral” to a doctor who will carry out those procedures.

In a letter in support of C-230 issued by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in March, the EFC explained why conscience protection is insufficient in much of Canada: “For some doctors and nurse practitioners, having to make an effective referral is akin to performing the procedure itself. Whether they end a patient’s life themselves or arrange for it to be done by someone else (via effective referral), they are still participating in the process.”

Only Manitoba has conscience protection that does not force medical professionals to violate their conscience by directing them to refer patients to doctors that will carry about abortion and euthanasia deaths – which trumps the medical bodies’ diktats. Campaign Life Coalition and the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition refer to the Manitoba law as the “gold standard in conscience protection” and have called for other provinces to pass similar protections.

On the day of the vote, two MPs, Arnold Viersen (Peace River-Westlock) and Len Webber (Calgary Confederation), introduced petitions calling upon Parliament to pass a bill protecting conscience rights. Webber, who stood up in the House a week earlier to speak in favour of conscience rights, reiterating his point: “As I said in my speech on this matter last week, I truly believe that as a society we must find a way to give Canadians something without taking something away from others. The protection of conscience rights does just this by ensuring lawmakers can, in good conscience, give access to certain medical procedures without unjustly compromising the existing freedoms exercised by others.” In March, several Conservative MPs, including Michael Cooper (St. Albert-Edmonton) and Glen Motz (Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner) submitted petitions on behalf of Canadians concerned about conscience rights.

Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski (Thunder Bay-Rainy River), who had previously expressed concern about the expansion of euthanasia during parliamentary debate last March, voted against C-230. Liberal MP John MacKay (Scarborough-Guildwood) did not vote.

Four Conservative MPs were not present for the vote and three of them — deputy leader Melissa Lantsman (Thornhill), Eric Duncan (Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry), and Dave Epp (Chatham-Kent—Leamington) — later said they would have voted for C-230 if they were present in the House of Commons. Lantsman, who was not in the House because it was Yom Kippur, rose to speak in favour of C-230 on Sept. 29, saying, “The bill we are debating today is worth more than a casual dismissal, as I have heard done in this debate by so many.” 

After the vote Block released a statement, saying, “There is a growing concern among many medical professionals, regardless of whether they support the practice or not, that they may be forced to participate in MAiD due to the expanding eligibility.” Block added: “This is doubly concerning to those professionals who may feel obligated to provide it, even if they do not believe it is in a particular patient’s best interest based on their knowledge of the patient’s medical history.”

Block concluded her statement saying “With today’s vote, Canadians have once again been shown that only Conservative Members of Parliament will defend their fundamental rights and freedoms.”

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada said, “No medical professional should be forced to participate in taking the life of a patient,” and Campaign Life Coalition said the fight for conscience protection for all medical professionals for all procedures, including abortion and gender-transitioning, will continue.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said in a statement, “Thank you Kelly Block for championing the rights of medical practitioners’ conscience rights.” He added, “The need for conscience rights has not ended,” because, “Conscience rights are fundamental freedoms that are protected by Section 2 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” He explained that the constantly expanding euthanasia license underlines the importance of conscience rights and worries that without a law explicitly protecting them, they will be undermined by the supposed right to euthanasia.

Schadenberg said, “conscience rights are essential to protect patients” because “when someone is living with a chronic or life limiting illness they will often be emotionally or psychologically affected by the experience (and) conscience rights enable a physician to freely protect patients and enable them to live through their crisis.”