Reaction grows to bill that would allow doctors to refuse procedures based on moral objections

Public debate swelled Friday after United Conservative Party MLAs voted to advance a private member's bill that some say could put women's and LGBTQ rights in question.

Some say the bill could put women's and LGBTQ rights in question

Dan Williams, the UCP MLA for Peace River, says Bill 207 was created to back up existing rights. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC)

Public debate swelled Friday after United Conservative Party MLAs voted to advance a private member's bill that some say could put women's and LGBTQ rights in question.

The bill would not only let Alberta doctors refuse to advise or assist on things they object to due to for personal or religious beliefs — like abortions, contraception or medically assisted death (MAID) — but also drops the current obligation that they steer patients elsewhere for help.

Physicians already have the right to refuse to help a patient under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta directs doctors to offer patients timely access to another member or service that can, or offer information about a resource that will "provide accurate information about all available medical options."

Bill 207 — the Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act — was introduced by United Conservative backbencher Dan Williams on Thursday to reassert the Charter-protected freedom of conscience and religion for health providers.

"This bill seeks to commit to provincial law the fundamental freedom … for health care providers so that these professionals never have to choose between their most deeply held convictions on one side and their jobs on the other," said Williams to the Alberta Legislature.

"This bill is aligned with existing protections that many colleges and regulatory bodies governing these professions already have established and gives certainty to our valued Alberta health care providers while maintaining access to services."

Williams's bill passed the first reading with a vote of 36 to 15. All UCP MLAs in attendance voted to pass it, while all NDP MLAs voted against it.

The MLA's who voted for and against Bill 207, Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act. (Alberta Hansard)

On Twitter, Williams said he's very pleased to have tabled the private member's bill.

Williams is a member of Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative caucus, but is not a cabinet member.

Kenney, a Catholic, has said in the past his government would not legislate on judicially settled hot button issues like abortion.

In 2016, Kenney said that if he were to become leader of the Alberta PC Party, he would "allow for freedom of conscience for [MLAs] to represent their constituents on ethical issues, and to do so when those matters come up as votes, but as a government, we wouldn't be taking initiatives on those issues."

Mix of reactions

Some Twitter users wrote that the bill will intensify fears that women's and LGBTQ rights are at risk.

Kristopher Wells, an associate professor in the department of child and youth care at MacEwan University, wrote on Twitter that if Bill 207 passes into law, health professionals will be able to deny MAID, refuse abortion services or referrals, deny birth control, and promote abstinence-only education.

He later wrote that this "dangerous legislation is akin to the Southern United States, not Canada."

Another Twitter account called Friends of Medicare, a progressive, non-profit NGO advocating for public health care, said in a release that the bill was "a political attack on Albertans' access to legal health care services."

"This government's attempt at creating a new law that would allow doctors and nurses to refuse to take part in legal health care services on moral grounds is unconscionable. It will ultimately hinder Albertans' ability to access a safe and legal health service," wrote Sandra Azocar, the NGO's executive director.

Several medical professionals replied to Williams's tweet with their own concerns.

"I am a registered nurse. It is my duty, and every health care professionals duty, to leave their biases at home and to provide the best care for your patients. Bill 207 DOES NOT DO THIS! Shame on you UCP!" tweeted Twitter user Beth McKendrick.

However, Williams said he's consulted widely with doctors and has heard a lot of concern about "moral distress."

"There is a real concern. They feel as though within the province, particularly in health care, but in our country at large across all professions and in public, there is an attack on conscientious belief and a diversity of views," he said.

"They feel it's easier for them to continue practising if they have this [Charter-affirmed] certainty."

NDP response

Williams says his bill is meant to simply affirm Charter rights. But the opposition NDP said the bill is trophy legislation for the party's social conservative wing and a back-door attempt to limit access to services like abortion.

Williams, the member for Peace River, said that is "absolutely not" the case.

"This legislation is intended only to protect the Charter rights that individuals have and access to all these [medical] services will continue afterwards as before — no changes," Williams said Wednesday.

Some NDP MLAs who voted against the bill voiced their thoughts online.

"In spite of all their promises, the UCP are attempting to roll back women's rights. It's deeply, deeply worrying that they think women's rights are open to 'debate,'" tweeted Joe Ceci, an NDP MLA for Calgary-Buffalo. 

David Shepherd, MLA for Edmonton-City Centre, said he's "deeply disturbed that any MLA would think it appropriate for a medical professional to refuse to even *refer* a patient in need to legal medical services they require..."

However, not all reactions were in opposition.

Brad Trost, a former Conservative MP representing ridings in Saskatoon, tweeted: "Wow, more positive news coming out of Alberta. Way to go, @DanDWill, in protecting Canadians Conscience Rights."

Twitter user Dan Philip also applauded Williams and wrote that referrals are "completely superfluous" and that it takes seconds to find out where to get those services.

What's next?

Without government backing, private member's bills face a much steeper and difficult climb to get through multiple stages of debate to become law.

With the bill now before the legislature it could be subject to further debate, or moved to a committee for a deeper dive — meaning there are many steps it would have to go through before becoming law, if at all.

Share your opinion on Bill 207 in the comments section below, on CBC Calgary's Twitter account or CBC Calgary's Facebook.

With files from Canadian Press, Andrea Huncar and Mack Lamoureux