College of  Physicians and Surgeons Manitoba reveals similar plans

In a victory for the conscience and religious rights of medical professionals, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has revised its controversial draft policy that would have forced Ontario’s physicians to put aside their religious beliefs in order to comply with the College’s interpretation of Ontario human rights law. Doctors that could not abide the restrictions on conscience and religious belief would face disciplinary action from the College regardless of whether they actually ran afoul of the law.

The original draft policy stated that “a physician who refuses to provide a service or refuses to accept a patient on the basis of a prohibited ground such as sex or sexual orientation may be acting contrary to the (Human Rights) Code, even if the refusal is based on the physician’s moral or religious belief.”

It went on to explain: “There will be times when 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.” The document warned that not putting aside one’s religious beliefs could be deemed “professional misconduct.”

The draft was originally to be voted on in August but there was an uproar over the fact that the College did not actively solicit responses to their proposal and the public consultation was extended one month to Sept. 15. The College reported that it subsequently received more than 1300 responses, the vast majority of them strongly opposed to their proposal.

The CPSO proposal has received condemnation from religious leaders, pro-life groups and even other medical organizations.

The Ontario Medical Association urged the CPSO to abandon its draft policy prohibiting medical professionals from following their consciences when making decisions in their medical practice. The OMA statement said the association’s position is that “physicians maintain a right to exercise their own moral judgment and freedom of choice in making decisions regarding medical care and that the CPSO not insert itself into the interpretation of human rights statutes.”

The OMA said the CPSO draft policy did not “adequately inform physicians that their right to freedom of religion is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” and that the “CPSO should refer physicians to the Ontario Human Rights Code when physicians are faced with a moral or religious conflict in the care of a patient,” and not publish its own policy, which “has the potential to misstate the law in this area.”

The OMA criticizes the CPSO’s Professional Misconduct clause, observing that “a physician could be disciplined for withholding information about the existence of a procedure or treatment because providing that procedure or giving advice about it conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs.”

The OMA stated, “We believe that the vast majority of Ontarian physicians will provide patients with appropriate advice without a CPSO policy in this regard,” adding: “We believe that it should never be professional misconduct for an Ontarian physician to act in accordance with his or her religious or moral beliefs.”

In a joint statement, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast and Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka, both of Ottawa, said, “We are deeply disturbed by the draft policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. Many doctors have expressed a reasonable fear that if this policy is passed, they might be disciplined, and even lose their licenses, for obeying their conscience.”

Physicians for Life condemned the CPSO proposal as a violation of the conscience and religious rights of doctors, and condemned the “ethical bankruptcy“ of a society that coerces its medical professionals to partake in abortions.

PFL condemned the attempt to “deny the essential humanity of physicians by suppressing their freedom to act in accord with their deepest moral beliefs, merely to avoid the inconvenience some patients might experience in having to ‘shop around’ for morally controversial procedures.”

The revised policy excised most of the problematic language, including the explicit warning to physicians that “it may be necessary” to “set aside their personal beliefs.” It has also removed a provocative reference to “professional misconduct.”

The new policy emphasizes that physicians who refuse to perform a particular medical procedure could face action by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which has a history of opposing religion in the public square.

Yet, the new policy is not perfect. Sean Murphy, administrator of the Protection of Conscience Project, says that the revised policy, while much better, is still problematic. He said that “in some circumstances” doctors might “be obliged to help patients make arrangements for morally controversial procedures.” It also, “continues to link this expectation to the possibility of prosecution for professional misconduct.”

Yet, not everyone opposed the draft.

Notably, the OHRC was one of the few organizations that threw its support behind the CPSO policy in its original form, even suggesting that the section on restricting the conscience rights of physicians should be “strengthened further.”

Also, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba disclosed that they, too, are considering a plan to restrict physicians’ freedom of conscience and religion. News of the plan for Manitoba doctors was made public when their official response to the Ontario College’s draft proposal was reported by the CPSO.

According to the briefing note from the CSPO, their Manitoba counterpart provided “positive feedback” i to the CPSO’s draft policy. The CPSM “indicated that it has been dealing with similar issues, and may amend its Discrimination in Access to Physicians policy (currently in development), to accord with our draft policy,” the CPSO’s briefing note said.

The CPSM expressed its desire to emulate “the requirements for physicians to provide information about clinical options to patients, and assist patients in accessing care.” The CPSO draft policy would have required physicians to provide medical services or to refer for those services, even if the physician disagreed with them on grounds of conscience.

Despite the CPSO’s reconsideration of their position limiting freedom of conscience, there has not yet been any indication that the Manitoba College plans to amend their own policies.