Plans underway to relaunch federal measure

The end of November and early December, 1999, was a frustrating and confusing time for Canadians concerned about protecting the conscience rights of health care workers. Pro-lifers in particular have been pushing for years for conscience legislation to protect the employment and education of nurses who face pressure to participate in abortions.

The latest opportunity to advance their goals came in the form of Private Member’s Bill C-207, introduced in the House of Commons by Reform MP Maurice Vellacott. The bill had received the support of at least 100 Members of Parliament from at least three parties (Reform, Liberal, and Progressive Conservative). This level of endorsement guaranteed that it would be debated in the House, but it still had to be brought before the parliamentary sub-committee, where the decision is made on which private members’ bills will be made “votable.”

This is where the frustration began for pro-lifers, because, despite the endorsement of one-third of the House of Commons, the all-party committee refused to declare it votable, thus dooming the bill to a perfunctory one-hour debate without an actual vote.

Nevertheless, the bill could at least be debated in the House so that pro-life MPs could get their views on the public record, building the foundation for a future initiative. Unfortunately, however, due to a compilation of errors and misunderstandings, Mr. Vellacott ended up being the only MP to rise to defend his bill in the House on Nov. 18. Only the parliamentary secretary to the health minister, Yvon Charbonneau, and Progressive Conservative MP Greg Thompson otherwise spoke to the proposed legislation, both criticizing it.

Nevertheless, Mr. Vellacott used his time to present a compelling case for conscience legislation, building solidly on the foundation that was begun by Senator Stanley Haidasz when he defended his own conscience bill introduced in the Senate prior to his retirement last year.

Those championing the next step in the advancement of conscience protection should feel comfortable building from this base. That next step may not be long in coming if the Senate conscience bill, having been resurrected by Senator Raymond Perrault, makes its way through Parliament in a timely fashion.

Also, as LifeSite News reported in December, Mr. Vellacott’s bill can be reintroduced in Parliament in its current form, but with a new number. His bill first entered the schedule of Parliamentary business after being drawn through the traditional random draw process for Private Members’ Business. Since Mr. Vellacott’s bill has collected the support of 100 MPs under relatively new rules, his bill is still in the line-up of proposed legislation to be drawn from that new process, he says, following confirmation from parliamentary officials.

Making his case for conscience protection, one of the first points Mr. Vellacott made to the House of Commons was the discrimination that exists between the rights of doctors and those of nurses. Abortion is not simply a decision between a woman and her doctor, he explained, pointing out the direct involvement nurses play in the procedure today.

“Doctors are free to perform or not perform abortions, and pregnant women are free to undergo or not undergo an abortion, [but] nurses have not been given the same freedom,” he said.

Mr. Vellacott also discussed the legal precedents that exist for protecting nurses’ freedom of religion and conscience by referring to the protection of religion and conscience in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and provincial human rights acts, as well as in case law in both Charter cases and human rights cases.

Responding to Mr. Charbonneau’s criticism that the Criminal Code is not “a suitable legal vehicle” for protecting the constitutional rights of nurses and that the debate belonged in the provincial legislatures, Mr. Vellacott argued that nurses “need the broader protection of the federal government.” He said that 45 of the 50 American states have some form of conscience legislation on the books, but they provide only “a patchwork of protection” because they vary in nature and scope from state to state.

Mr. Thompson has a track record of being pro-life, so he took some people by surprise when he devoted much of his time to a partisan attack on the Reform Party, and otherwise dismissed the bill as unnecessary and inappropriate.