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TORONTO, December 7, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — Five Ontario doctors who have gone to court to defend their religious freedom and conscience rights are facing “intimidation” tactics by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, which has responded “aggressively” to the lawsuit, says a spokesperson for the physicians.

And Ontario’s Liberal government intervened on behalf of the CPSO in July, which coupled with the College’s hardball response, has the litigants’ legal bills skyrocketing.

The doctors are challenging the CPSO policy forcing them to refer patients who request “medical services” to which they are morally opposed — notably abortion, abortifacient contraception, and euthanasia — to non-objecting, accessible colleagues.

The policy also compels physicians to perform abortions, write prescriptions, or euthanize patients “in an emergency where it is necessary to prevent imminent harm to the patient,” and permits objections on medical grounds only.

The five doctors are co-plaintiffs in the action with three groups: Canadian Physicians for Life, and the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, and the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada (CMDSC).

The College demanded to cross-examine all five physicians, four of whom are Evangelical Christians and one a Catholic, questioning them on their religious beliefs, said Larry Worthen, executive director of the CMDSC.

“It feels like this organization with a tremendous amount of power is bearing down on these five doctors who are just trying to follow their faith,” he told LifeSiteNews.

“There is this whole intimidation factor; they’re being cross-examined by their regulator. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be put in. It could expose them to discipline later on.”

When the College ratified the policy in March 2015, Ontario became only jurisdiction in the world to compel physicians to violate their conscience, Worthen said.

The only possible exception is Quebec, which currently requires a physician to contact a medical administrator about a patient who requests euthanasia, he said.

The doctors launched their suit in early 2015, arguing that the CPSO policy violates their Section 2 Charter right to freedom of religion, and Section 15 Charter protection from discrimination based on religious beliefs.

They launched a second action after euthanasia was legalized under Bill C-14 in June 2016, and the College expanded its policy to include that.

Doctors who refuse to refer for, or provide in unspecified “emergency” situations, such “services” as abortion or euthanasia could lose their medical licence.

Worthen described the case as “huge.”

“People’s careers are on the line. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say the future of Christian healthcare is on the line,” he said.

“The college could discipline people for following their consciences, and the end result is that Christians would be forced to change their practice or vacate medicine altogether.”

Not only does the CPSO policy violate Charter rights of religious freedom, it is “highly discriminatory,” Worthen noted, particularly when it comes to euthanasia, “which covers a majority of specialties,” including palliative care and family practise.

“It will force conscientious objectors out of the practice of medicine or into a very few specialities where this issue would not come up,” he told LifeSiteNews.

Indeed, a College affidavit advised physicians with religious or moral objections to euthanasia to specialize in pathology, plastic surgery, or sports medicine.

The CPSO directive also “has a real chilling effect” on medical students, who “are very nervous about being seen to be people who have conscientious objections.”

Worthen said the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience asked to meet with the College “numerous times” and were refused.

The national Coalition includes Archdioceses of Toronto and Vancouver, the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, as well as the three groups involved in the lawsuit. The Coalition is urging political action on behalf of the litigants, as well raising funds for the lawsuit.

The Coalition did meet with representatives of the Liberal government, Worthen said, and “we’re continuing to express to them our concerns about the situation.”

“Ontario’s position is that these policies strike a reasonable balance between the sincerely held religious beliefs of objecting physicians and the important state interest in ensuring vulnerable patients are able to access legally available medical procedures,” Brendan Crawley, spokesperson for the Attorney General, told LifeSiteNews in an email.

“As this matter is before the Courts, we cannot comment further.”

The plaintiffs have already spent about $75,000 on the action but need an additional $55,000.

The College has also demanded to cross-examine expert witnesses, including an evangelical theologian, according to the Catholic Register.

That means lawyer Albertos Polizogopoulos must travel to Oregon, North Carolina, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Netherlands to be with the witnesses when they testify, adding to the expense.

But Ontario’s bishops resolved in their last plenary to throw their support behind the fight for conscience rights protection, which is a “very significant” boost, Worthen said.

“We’ve always known that they’ve been supporting us, but they’ve made a very strong education program to get the information out to all parishioners,” and to encourage people to go to the Coalition’s website, he told LifeSiteNews.

“We’re promoting that we want people to continue to write letters to the College and to the minister of health. They can do that on our website. It’s one-stop shopping.”

Worthen expects the case will be argued sometime before June, and said that while there’s “strong public support, we need much more support; we need that data base to go from 25,000 to 100,000,” not to mention donations.

“Most people just can’t believe it. They assume that Canada is a country where human rights and freedoms are protected and people will not be forced to do things against their will,” he said.

“People need to know that this is a very serious situation. The time has come to assist us.”

For more information, visit the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience here.