By John Jalsevac

September 18, 2008 ( – Officials at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) have revised the controversial draft policy that would have forced Ontario’s physicians to put aside their religious beliefs in their medical practices or face disciplinary action.

The original draft policy explained, “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 policy originally was supposed to be voted upon mid-August, with public consultation ending August 15. However, public consultation was extended to September after news of the policy broke in the media and a furor ensued, with numerous interested parties complaining they were left completely in the dark about the document.

According to documents from the College, the regulatory body subsequently received over 1300 responses to the draft policy, most of them strenuously opposing it, arguing that it violated the freedom of religion. 

Some of those who condemned the proposed policy included Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa and Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka, who last week wrote to the College, saying, “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. They would no longer be free to refuse to perform or refer for certain medical acts that are contrary to their firmly held beliefs.”

Last week the Ontario Medical Association, which boasts a membership of 25,000, also expressed its opposition to the CPSO’s policy.

The now-revised policy, which is expected to be voted upon today, has excised some of the most controversial passages, including the passage which explicitly warned physicians that “it may be necessary” to “set aside their personal beliefs.” It has also removed the reference to “professional misconduct.”

Instead the policy now emphasizes that physicians who refuse to perform a particular medical procedure could face action by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). The OHRC has a history of strenuous opposition to the presence of religion in the public square. The OHRC is also 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”, according to CPSO documents.

Sean Murphy, Administrator of the Protection of Conscience Project, who has strongly opposed the policy, says that while the revised policy, while much better, is still concerning.

“While blatantly provocative assertions have been deleted, the draft continues to assert that physicians may ‘in some circumstances’ be obliged to help patients make arrangements for morally controversial procedures,” said Murphy. Furthermore, “It continues to link this expectation to the possibility of prosecution for professional misconduct.”

“One is left to wonder whether College officials are sincerely interested in a full and careful consideration of their proposal,” said Murphy, who requested that today’s scheduled vote be postponed further.