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If you believe in protecting the freedom of conscience of our doctors, here’s your chance to do something about it.Shutterstock

June 12, 2014 – If you believe in protecting the freedom of conscience of our doctors, here’s your chance to do something about it. Earlier this month, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) sent out a little notice that was easy to miss, saying that they are now reviewing their policy on this topic, and inviting not just physicians but also the public and interested organizations to provide input on how their policy can be “improved.”

Here’s what concerns me. Earlier this spring, three Ottawa doctors were under fire in the media for refusing to prescribe artificial birth control. The public response was in large part negative, with comments accusing these doctors of oppressing women and imposing their own religious values upon their patients. Shockingly to me, many people even expressed the view that doctors who do not prescribe birth control or refer for abortion should not be permitted to practice medicine.

That was the public, but what about the experts? Turns out that doctors and ethicists are more divided than ever on this question, and some important players are leaning towards tighter restrictions on physicians’ freedom of conscience. This is evident in a current major project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research which deals with precisely this issue. Entitled Let Conscience Be Their Guide? Conscientious Refusals in Reproductive Health Care, the project asks whether it is permissible for doctors to refuse providing “health care services such as abortions.” The project’s website states that the answer will come “in part from a feminist perspective.” I already sense what that will mean for the right of conscientious refusal.

The project is headed by Carolyn McLeod, currently teaching ethics at the University of Toronto. Ms. McLeod has already shown her cards, and her take does not bode well for freedom of conscience in Canada. Speaking about Dr. Edmond Kyrillos, one of the three Ottawa doctors, Ms. McLeod sees it this way: “Refusing to give referrals for legal and professionally accepted services (“standard” services), including abortions, he arguably violated the right of patients to access these services.”  In her opinion it would be wrong to think that doctors “do not have to check their morals at the door” because “there are times when physicians have to do just that.”

Ms. McLeod leaves us in no doubt. She does not share the standard understanding of freedom of conscience, whereby doctors hold the right to respect their most deeply held moral, ethical, and religious beliefs while carrying out their professional work. This ancient freedom, historically enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath, is now viewed as a danger to the progress of feminist ideology. Doctors are being turned into mere mechanics because they need to be forced to provide or refer for abortions and artificial contraception, among other “reproductive services” with which they may not morally agree.

Back to the current public consultation by the CPSO on their policy, entitled Physicians and the Ontario Human Rights Code. This policy is enormously important, as Ontario physicians have to abide by it or risk losing their license. When the CPSO revised this policy in 2008 they attempted to whittle down the freedom of conscience, but the loud protests of many public leaders, including Archbishop Terrence Prendergast and Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa, caused them to remove the most restrictive portions of the draft policy. Now that they are revisiting that policy, will they again attempt to pull the noose tighter for those doctors who do not share the feminist agenda?

One thing is certain: the CPSO will receive many comments urging them to do so. The comments received in the consultation are all visible on their website, and several refer to the case of the three Ottawa doctors while indicating that the CPSO should restrict the ability of doctors to deny their patients referral or provision of “reproductive health” services.

Some of the comments might have come from members of the Radical Handmaids, an Ottawa feminist organization that put out an alert about the CPSO consultation on their Facebook page.  Pro-lifers might have noticed the Radical Handmaids at the March for Life, where their contingent featured a mock nun.

As it happens, the Radical Handmaids were largely responsible for creating the earlier debate about the three Ottawa doctors, since the woman who was allegedly turned away by these doctors initially publicized her outrage on their Facebook page (and, since she remains anonymous, she too might be a member of this group). They are a group with surprising influence; one of their founders, Julie Lalonde, has received a Governor General’s Award, and also sits on the board of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

But the Radical Handmaids don’t need to have the last word on the freedom of conscience of Ontario physicians. We all have a chance to let our voices be heard in this consultation. Let’s make it very clear to the College that all physicians need to remain free to refuse to provide or refer for services that they believe to be gravely unethical and immoral. A policy that forces doctors to “check their ethics at the door” would not only endanger all patients, but would also spell the end of our free and democratic society, by excluding from the professional life many excellent doctors who refuse to violate the moral and religious teachings of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic religions among others.

The deadline for public input is August 5, 2014.

To add your comment to the CPSO public consultation, go here.

Lea Singh writes from Ottawa and blogs at https://leazsingh.blogspot.ca/. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Dartmouth College, and previously worked in a New York law firm before joining nonprofit organizations to defend the worth and dignity of human life and the natural family, both at the United Nations and in Canada’s capital.  She is currently employed full time as the homeschooling mother of three young children.

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