New Policy Report: Freedom of Conscience in Healthcare



November 16, 2021

Freedom of conscience is one of Canada’s fundamental freedoms under section 2(a) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This fundamental freedom is a basic building block for other rights and freedoms, but it has not been treated with the same importance in recent years.

Canada’s history of religious tolerance was influenced by American and British religious divides in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the time of Confederation, Canada sought to expand freedom of religion and conscience to all Canadians.

Freedom of conscience allows people to judge their own actions based on their beliefs of what is right and wrong. Whether or not they adhere to a particular religion, people seek to live and act according to their moral beliefs. A proper understanding of freedom of conscience recognizes that there is a diversity of beliefs about right and wrong within society. Individuals may choose not to follow accepted norms and appeal instead to a higher authority.

And indeed, discussions around freedom of conscience often involve a consideration of the question of authority. Governments have the authority to command or prohibit certain actions by their citizens, but how far does that authority extend where individual conscience is concerned? Ultimately, civil governments must recognize that their authority is limited and that God is the only authority over the conscience.

Because the conscience is subject to God, it also has certain limitations. There may be times when freedom of conscience is misused, and requests for accommodation must occasionally be rejected. Although freedom of conscience is not an absolute right, it should be protected and accommodated as much as possible.

The principles around freedom of conscience apply to multiple issues in society. One important application of freedom of conscience discussed in ARPA’s policy report in the area of healthcare. Many medical professionals raise moral and professional objections to various procedures that are legally permissible. In many cases, the freedom not to perform certain procedures (such as circumcision, for example) is permitted. But when it comes to providing politically and morally controversial procedures such as abortion or euthanasia, medical professionals are often required to participate in the procedure through effective referrals.

Whether it is a doctor who cannot give an effective referral for euthanasia, or a pharmacist who will not provide certain contraceptives, there should be room for individuals to refuse to violate their conscience. All levels of government should respect freedom of conscience, and accommodate conscientious objectors as much as possible, especially on ethically disputed issues.

ARPA Canada’s recommendations focus on how freedom of conscience can be more appropriately protected in Canada’s healthcare system by limiting coercion of healthcare professionals, protecting them against inappropriate disciplinary action, and supporting diversity in the healthcare system. Conscience rights can be respected for all healthcare professionals in a way that is good for both patients and medical professionals.

Read the entire policy report here.

Also, join us at 3 PM EST on Thursday, November 18 on our Facebook page as we discuss what freedom of conscience is and why it is so important.

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