New Alberta bill offers robust protections for freedom of conscience

07 Nov 2019 New Alberta bill offers robust protections for freedom of conscience

We have encouraging news. Dan Williams, MLA for Peace River, Alberta, tabled a bill today that would protect both individual health care providers and health care facilities from being required to provide services that conflict with their religious beliefs, conscientious beliefs, ethical judgment, or cultural traditions.

One of the bill’s stated purposes is to provide certainty to health care providers and religious health care organizations with respect to exercising their Charter-protected freedoms of conscience and religion. This is greatly needed in a time when both individual providers and religious health care organizations face pressure to provide services that conflict with their core beliefs, not to mention longstanding principles of medical ethics.

The bill protects health care providers against employment discrimination for refusing to provide services that violate their beliefs. It protects both individual health care workers and religious organizations from being sued for damages for refusing to provide such a service. It also protects individual health care providers against being disciplined by a regulatory body for the same. In fact, if a complaint is filed against a health care provider simply for refusing to provide a service for reasons of conscience, the regulator must dismiss such a complaint immediately. Conscientious refusal may not, on its own, be considered unprofessional conduct.

The bill states that a regulatory body may not require health care providers to directly or indirectly perform services that the health care provider determines would infringe her conscientious beliefs. It also states that regulators may not require a health care provider to make statements that would infringe the health care provider’s conscientious beliefs. Such a statement might include, for example, recommending or referring a patient for a treatment to which the provider morally objects.

Of course, the bill does not release health service providers and organizations from any and all professional obligations, as the bill mentions for purposes of clarity. It is not a license to abandon patients. We expect the bill to be attacked in this way, with the implicit assumption that religious health care providers would be ready and willing to abandon patients, leaving vulnerable, sick people to find themselves a new health care provider. But that is not the case. It means only that a particular service need not be provided or facilitated (such as by referring the patient to a willing euthanasia provider) by the conscientiously objecting provider. A health care provider may need to at least provide accurate information to a patient about the patient’s options.

If passed, this bill would establish a robust set of legal protections for Alberta health care providers. This is good not only for health care providers, but also for patients, who are better off in a health care system that welcomes practitioners with solid ethical convictions and strong consciences.

We are pleased to support this bill. We offer our sincere thanks to Mr. Williams and we invite you to do so too. Please also ask your local MLA to support this bill.

For those of you outside of Alberta, you might commend this bill to your MLA or MPP. You can read the whole bill and share it through this link. We would like to see every province enact a similar law.


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