December 6, 2021

Canada’s politicians go MIA in debate over conscientious objection for doctors

Conservatives decline to defend their own position

Conscientious objection to abortion and euthanasia has emerged as an election issue in Canada’s 2021 federal election – and politicians are refusing to defend it.

The pro-choice leader of the Conservatives, Erin O’Toole, has walked back from a promise in his party’s platform to “protect the conscience rights of health-care professionals.”

Does this mean that the Conservatives will defend the right not to refer patients for Medical Aid in Dying? O’Toole fudged an answer, but he was clearly not in favour.

The governing Liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, jumped on an opportunity to score points: “Pro-choice doesn’t mean the freedom of doctors to choose. It means the freedom of women to choose. Leaders have to be unequivocal on that,” he said last week.

The politicians’ reluctance to support doctors who do not want to refer for abortion or euthanasia is mirrored in the reluctance of the professional associations to defend refusal to refer. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario requires doctors to provide an “effective referral” within a “timely manner” to another professional or agency, should they consciously object. “Physicians must not impede access to care for existing patients, or those seeking to become patients,” reads the college’s policy.

Quebec’s Collège des médecins du Québec says that: “In Quebec, doctors cannot abandon patients or even ignore their request by invoking conscientious objections, particularly in matters of abortion or medical assistance in dying, without referring them to another colleague. It is an ethical obligation.”

However, Colleges in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Manitoba all explicitly say that professionals who refuse to provide service are not required to make a referral. They cite the Canadian Medical Association’s Code of Ethics and Professionalism.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge  

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