A draft proposal by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario could strip Ontario doctors of their right to the free exercise of religion and conscience. The CPSO has proposed changes to its code of conduct to limit doctors’ ability to act according to their religious beliefs or conscience that result in restricting treatment, taking new patients or ending the doctor-patient relationship due to grounds such as race, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

The CPSO advises that, “If physicians have moral or religious beliefs which affect or may affect the provision of medical services, the college advises physicians to proceed cautiously.” While admitting that religious beliefs and personal values are “central to the lives of physicians and their patients,” the CPSO says doctors must “place the needs of the patient first” and that it “may be necessary for physicians to set aside their personal beliefs in order to ensure that patients or potential patients are provided with the medical treatment and services they require.”

As examples, the college says doctors would be required to provide fertility treatment to homosexual couples or birth control to women.

Physicians for Life and the Protection of Conscience Project have both criticized the proposal. Dr. Will Johnston of PFL said if the college changes its code of conduct, it would “severely limit the freedom of Ontario physicians to practise according to their conscientious/religious freedom.”

Currently, the Canadian Medical Association protects the conscience rights of doctors, except when their acting on religious beliefs would endanger the life of the patient. That is, doctors are required to provide medically necessary “urgent care.”

Johnston warned that contrary to current practice, a doctor who objected to abortion for moral or religious reasons might be compelled to kill an unborn child or refer a woman to another doctor for an abortion.

The Protection of Conscience Project said that Ontario physicians are “expected to give up freedom of conscience if they wish to practise medicine in the province.”

The National Post reported that the college said the proposal is a pre-emptive attempt to protect doctors from future human rights complaints. Spokeswoman Jill Hefley said that draft document is designed to alert doctors of the legal issues they may face in the near future.

However the draft proposal states: “Irrespective of whether a physician’s actions are found to have violated the (Ontario Human Rights) Code, the physician’s conduct could constitute an act of professional misconduct.”

Lorne Gunter, a columnist with the Post, said the proposal was tantamount to “politically correct extortion to threaten doctors with their livelihood if they don’t buckle under and practise medicine the way Ontario’s human rights junta thinks it should be practised.”

Physicians for Life also complained about the lack of publicity the college gave the proposal and formally requested that the deadline for responses be extended – which it was, from Aug. 15 to Sept. 12. PFL said that implications for “the profession as a whole” require more discussion. Johnston said the changes present a “problem not only for the integrity of physicians, but also for the welfare of their patients.”