South Peace News
With his first bill, Peace River MLA Dan Williams has reopened the controversial debate on “conscience rights” in Alberta.
Williams introduced Bill 207, the Conscience Rights [Health Care Providers] Protection Act on Nov. 7.
Williams says the bill enshrines conscience rights for health care providers in provincial law “so that these professionals never have to choose between their most deeply held convictions on one side, and their jobs on the other.”
The new legislation prevents health care providers or religious health care organizations from being required to provide any health care services that infringe on their “conscientious beliefs.”
The bill mandates that any regulatory bodies are not allowed to “compel performance”, and must dismiss any related complaints from patients.
It also protects health care providers and religious health care organizations from any liability for refusing to provide a health care service.
The bill includes a provision to amend the Alberta Human Rights Act by adding “conscientious belief” as a protected class.
Williams says his bill is meant to simply reaffirm doctor’s rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in response to a unanimous Appeal Court of Ontario ruling this spring. The ruling found health care providers who object on moral grounds to providing services such as birth control, abortion and medically-assisted death must offer their patients an “effective referral” to another doctor who can provide the service.
The Ontario court is the highest court in the country to have ruled on the issue of balancing the conscience rights of doctors against the rights of patients.
Until now, Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons has also directed doctors who may object to providing some services to refer their patients so they can get those services elsewhere.
However, Catholic doctors such as Dr. Mary Ellen Haggerty, who heads the St. Luke’s Physicians Guild in Alberta, have raised concerns they may be forced to provide referrals for medically-assisted suicide or euthanasia under the Ontario ruling.
Medically-assisted death has been legal in Canada since 2016.
Williams, like Premier Jason Kenney, is a devout Catholic. He says his bill will “create certainty” for health care professionals.
Williams is not a minister, so he brought forward the bill as a private member. Private member’s bills typically have a more difficult time passing, but Williams’ UCP colleagues backed the bill in first reading in a vote that passed on division 36-15.
Members against first reading were all part of the NDP opposition.
The NDP says the new bill is a back-door attempt to limit access to not only medically-assisted death, but also reproductive healthcare such as birth control and abortion.
Williams attended an anti-abortion March for Life rally at the legislature in May, where he told media, “I’m pro-life. It’s been a position of value of mine, deeply held belief for a long time.”
Kenney has said in past that while he is personally opposed to abortion, he has no plans to change related legislation.
In a sign of how contentious the conscience rights issue is, NDP MLA and critic for women’s issues Janis Irwin brought the bill up in question period before it was even introduced, asking the UCP government to commit not to supporting the bill and suggesting it may lead to discrimination against LGBTQA+ Albertans.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro responded that all Albertans are already protected from discrimination.
Williams says he looks forward to “a robust debate” on the bill.