Alberta College of Physicians Approves “in Principle” the Denial of Doctors’ Conscience Rights



June 18, 2009

By Patrick B. Craine

EDMONTON, Alberta, June 5, 2009 ( – The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) held a Council meeting on Friday where they “approved in principle” their new Standards of Practice. This document includes a controversial section that would require physicians who disagree with abortion and contraception to make referrals. These Standards would replace the existing policies and guidelines of the College; but before giving final approval, the Council is seeking legal advice.

The relevant portion of the document, section 8 on ‘Termination of Pregnancy and Birth Control’, would require physicians who disagree with abortion and contraception to ensure that patients who are interested obtain information about these “options,” and to ensure that they have access to them. 

The section states: “Even if a physician’s religious or personal convictions prevent the physician from advising or offering care regarding birth control or termination of a pregnancy, the physician must ensure that the patient who seeks such advice or medical care is offered access to information and assistance in making an informed decision and access to available medical options.”

In response to these Standards, the Protection of Conscience Project, a non-denominational, non-profit organization that works for conscience legislation, challenged the CPSA with a submission in October 2008. “To demand that physicians provide or assist in the provision of procedures or services that they believe to be wrong,” states the submission, “is to treat them as means to an end and deprive them of their ‘essential humanity.’”

“While a patient’s reasonable request for a referral should normally be honoured,” says the Project later in the document, “it is not reasonable to demand a referral to other health care professionals for procedures or services the physician believes to be wrong. A physician’s refusal to do so should not be considered a breach of the Standards.”

“The requirement that a physician ‘ensure that the patient … is offered access to available medical options’ is likely to be interpreted to impose a duty to refer for or otherwise facilitate procedures or services the physician believes to be wrong. Many objecting physicians would find this unacceptable.”

The conscience rights of health practitioners have been a major issue in North America recently. On his way out of office in January, President Bush enacted regulations ensuring that existing conscience protections were enforced; but President Obama has begun the process of repealing those regulations. 

The changes in Alberta’s Standards happened after similar changes were proposed in Ontario’s code of conduct for physicians. The most controversial language was removed in Ontario’s case, however, although the Protection of Conscience Project still had concerns about the revised language.

See related coverage:

Alberta Considers Denying Physician Conscience Rights

Ontario Physicians College Backs Away from Controversial Conscience-Restriction Policy

Alberta, Freedom of Conscience Email Us 

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