Lack of public input stalls physician conscience bill at legislature committee

A wave of public debate over a bill that aims to support the conscience beliefs of medical professionals has the Peace River MLA who drew up the bill already making adjustments. 

MLA who put private member's bill forward has already drawn up amendments

Peace River MLA Dan Williams speaks Monday to a legislature committee about Bill 207. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

A wave of public debate over a bill that aims to support the conscience beliefs of medical professionals has the Peace River MLA who drew up the bill already making adjustments. 

Speaking to a legislature standing committee, Dan Williams said he'd had numerous discussions since introducing Bill 207 on Nov. 7, prompting him to draft amendments to address concerns he was hearing.

"I understand that there is a concern about access to services," Williams said.

"This past week, I've accepted a number of friendly amendments from a number of health-care colleges ... [and] I've come up with a host of material changes so that we can accomplish both ends.

"Yes, making sure we can protect freedom of conscience for these objectors and yes, also making sure that we have access to services and the colleges continue on."

Though Williams had shared copies of his proposed amendments, the committee chair reminded members the business at hand was to discuss the bill as originally written.

Bill 207 would let Alberta doctors refuse to advise or assist on procedures such as abortions, contraception or medically assisted death based on personal or religious beliefs and would also drop the current obligation that they steer patients elsewhere for help.

The bill says a health-care provider or religious health-care organization is not required to provide a health-care service, including "the provision of a formal or informal referral in respect of a patient" that violates their personal beliefs.

A lack of public input was a major concern. In the end, members of the Standing Committee on Private Bills and Private Members' Public Bills agreed to invite stakeholders to a future meeting to give presentations about the bill and its potential impact.

"It's quite evident today from the presentation that was made by MLA Williams that there were a lot of individuals that were not consulted," said NDP MLA Rakhi Pancholi. "Therefore I think it's absolutely critical that we get the input from stakeholders."

A key concern of several committee members is the matter of referrals. 

"Many queer and trans folks have reached out to me, along with doctors," said NDP MLA Janis Irwin. "Evidence shows that if they don't have access to this sort of care, they can die."

Several times during the extended question-and-answer period, Williams reiterated that a formal doctor's referral is not required for many procedures and patients had many other options to get information, such as Health Link. 

Irwin scoffed at that suggestion. "You've talked about the Health Link phone line … that's not good enough," she said. "I should be able to see a doctor."

A news release sent by Williams following the meeting included a statement from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta endorsing the wording changes provided in his amendments.

In its statement, the college says it believes its current practices around conscientious objection are sufficient but notes that the new wording of the amendments is "in great alignment with our standard of practice."

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday he hasn't made a decision on whether or not to support it, noting that he will listen to the stakeholder presentations with interest.

"My job as health minister is to make sure Albertans have access to health services," Shandro said.

"I absolutely support non-discrimination, I support access to health-care services ... I would be voting against a bill that didn't comply with those concerns of mine."


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