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Protect Canadian doctors’ conscience rights

At the Westglen Medical Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Dr. Chantal Barry will not prescribe artificial contraception. You know when she is on duty because of a sign that reads: The physician on duty today will not prescribe the birth control pill.

In Ottawa, Dr. Edmond Kyrillos is one of three doctors who will not prescribe birth control. In a letter to patients of CareMedics Medical Clinic where Dr. Kyrillos is on staff, he says:

Please be advised that because of reasons of my own medical judgment as well as professional ethical reasons and religious values, I only provide one form of birth control, Natural Family Planning. In addition, I do not refer for vasectomies, abortions, nor prescribe the morning after pill or any artificial contraception. If you are interested in the latter, please be aware that you may approach your own family doctor or request to be seen by another physician.

There has been much negative reaction to the doctors’ stance. Commenters at the Huffington Post cited chauvinism, disrespect for women, and archaic thinking in their criticism of Dr. Kyrillos. At the National Post, the online argument between supporters and critics of Dr. Chantal Barry’s refusal to prescribe the birth control pill was long and heated.

At present, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) supports physicians such as Dr. Barry and Dr. Kyrillos. They have not acted counter to the CMA’s Best Practice Guidelines or policies. The CMA recognizes that physicians will practice medicine in light of their personal moral and religious beliefs.

In Ontario, the Physicians and the Ontario Human Rights Code Policy specifies that physicians must:

communicate clearly and promptly about any treatments or procedures the physician chooses not to provide because of his or her moral or religious beliefs. [They must] advise patients or individuals who wish to become patients that they can see another physician with whom they can discuss their situation and in some circumstances, help the patient or individual make arrangements to do so.

According to Sean Murphy, administrator of the Protection of Conscience Project, the Physicians and the Ontario Human Rights Code Policy has been in effect since December 2008. Back then, objections from physicians and the public “narrowly prevented the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario from enacting a policy to suppress freedom of conscience among physicians. It is now reviewing the policy, quite possibly with the view to accomplishing what it could not accomplish then” (emphasis added).

As a registered nurse I find this extremely troubling. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals must be allowed to make decisions based on the obligation to “do no harm.” Without conscience rights, healthcare professionals become the puppets of hospital boards, government policies, and misguided demands from patients or their powers of attorney. There will be a lack of trust from the public if patients are unable to access health professionals with the same religious beliefs. Healthcare professionals will be unable to give patients informed choices and alternatives to treatment. For instance, a physician will not be able to determine the reason a patient wants to refuse further treatment for a life-threatening condition and will be powerless to offer alternatives that will improve quality of life. Think of what would happen if you were unable to speak for yourself and a hospital ethics board determined that further treatment was useless and no doctor was allowed to advocate on your behalf. Think of the implications if euthanasia and physician assisted suicide becomes legal in Ontario and the rest of Canada just as it has in Quebec. Think about how many more abortions would be performed.

As concerned citizens, there is something we can do to protect the conscience rights of our physicians and by extension other healthcare professionals. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) is currently reviewing its policy on conscience rights. According to their website, they “are inviting feedback from all stakeholders, including members of the medical profession, the public, health system organizations, and other health professionals on the current policy. Comments received during this preliminary consultation will assist the College in updating the policy. When a revised draft is developed, it will be recirculated for further comment before it is finalized by Council” (emphasis added).

The general public has a voice in the revision of the current policy. Please go to the CPSO website, read the current policy, complete the online survey, and submit your comments either in the discussion forum or by email. The deadline is  5 August 2014.

At the moment, those who oppose the conscience rights of physicians are in the majority. The comments in the discussion forum show that most of the respondents believe that doctors should leave their conscience at home.

Those of us who truly value life from conception to natural death must speak up now, before it is too late. We don’t have a moment to lose. Protecting our physicians’ right to conscientious refusal based on moral and religious beliefs protects all of us.

Sources: The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario and The Protection of Conscience Project.

Photo credit: everystockphoto.com

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