Controversial conscience rights bill for Alberta physicians voted down

A controversial private member's bill that called for more protection for Alberta health workers who invoke conscience rights, was rejected Thursday by an all-party committee of the legislature. 

'This is a very political thing and a very cynical thing and it is not about physicians'

Dan Williams, the UCP MLA for Peace River, introduced Bill 207. He says the bill was intended to reinforce charter rights for health-care professionals. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC)

A controversial private member's bill that called for more protection for Alberta health workers who invoke conscience rights was rejected Thursday by an all-party committee of the legislature. 

The Conscience Rights Act for Healthcare Workers, or Bill 207  — introduced by Peace River MLA and UCP (United Conservative Party) backbencher Dan Williams — would have meant doctors could not be sued or sanctioned for refusing to provide a service that goes against their moral beliefs. 

Some doctors and patient advocates said the bill would limit access to medical services such as contraception, abortion and assisted dying.

As it stands now, Alberta doctors who don't want to perform certain services must refer the patient to someone or to a service that can — but the bill had raised questions about whether health-care providers could be sanctioned for failing to do even that.

The private member's bill was tabled by Williams earlier this month, and passed first reading last week with all UCP members present voting to advance debate. 

However, during Thursday's vote, the committee voted 8-2 for Bill 207 not to proceed, meaning the legislation will not move on to debate in the house. 

Only two UCP MLAs voted for the bill to proceed to the legislature, Cardston UCP MLA Joseph Schow and Brooks-Medicine Hat MLA Michaela Glasgo. 

Vote result 'bittersweet'

"It's bittersweet because we really shouldn't be having this conversation in 2019," said NDP Opposition critic Janis Irwin.

"When you have this many experts agreeing that it's absolutely fundamentally flawed legislation and the fundamental rights of so many Albertans are under attack I think those MLAs need to go back to their constituents and really think about it ... we've heard from so many doctors on this."   

During her presentation to the committee, Calgary family physician Jillian Ratti, lashed out at UCP members for bringing the bill forward. 

Ratti said the bill did nothing to protect or acknowledge the conscience rights of physicians who advance reproductive rights. She said the legislation was a thinly veiled attempt to reopen the debate on judicially settled issues such as abortion.

"We shouldn't be talking about abortion rights in Alberta," Ratti said. "I think this bill is motivated by anti-abortion groups, some of which are likely foreign-funded. 

"This is a very political thing and a very cynical thing and it is not about physicians."

Bradley Peter, a board member with Dying with Dignity, said the bill would have punishing ramifications for the most vulnerable, medically compromised patients in Alberta.

People dying of "horrific conditions" and facing the prospect of a "long, agonizing death" have a right to access end of life care with the full support of a medical professional, Peter said.

"These people can barely sit up, they can barely hold a pencil. Some of them cannot open their eyes. Some of them cannot even speak. 

"It is unconscionable."

Doctors voiced concern over bill

Hundreds of physicians had voiced their concern over the bill. The Alberta Medical Association suggested it was unnecessary. 

The association had written to Health Minister Tyler Shandro to say the current rules are working and that Williams's bill was already causing anxiety for doctors and patients.

"The bill may have unintended consequences in limiting patient access to services," AMA president Christine Molnar told Shandro in the public letter.

"For physicians, the current state protects conscience rights while also ensuring that patients are given information or referral to allow them to pursue access to the desired service.

"This arrangement has served Albertans well and should be maintained."

Calgary-based family physician Kiely Williams, a supporter of the bill, told committee members she is a compassionate conscience objector. 

Without legislation, doctors will be deterred from practising in Alberta, Williams said. 

"I believe that if we don't allow the protections for people to object, my point is that we will lose it for everyone, regardless of where we stand on certain issues," she said. 

"We have to protect freedoms, because if we don't protect freedoms for everybody, we lose the freedoms for everybody." 

The bill will go before the house next week. Because it was rejected by a government member dominated committee, it will not receive support to proceed. 

Williams, however, said he will continue to advocate for conscience rights.

He has said the bill sought only to clarify that health-care providers' rights are in line with the Charter and won't limit access to any services.

Williams said he introduced the bill in light of recent Ontario case law attacking conscience. In May, Ontario's highest court ruled doctors in the province must give referrals for medical services that clash with their religious beliefs.

"I'm not coming at this from an ideological position," Williams said. 

"I'm coming at this in a way where we can find thoughtful, collaborative solutions to make sure we don't pit doctors and health-care providers against their patients." 

The bill would ensure health-care professionals don't have to choose between their convictions and their jobs, Williams said.

"That's what Albertans tell me they want," Williams said.

"That's what I believe my constituents want. That's what I believe this bill does and that's why I'm going to continue to advocate for it." 

Premier Jason Kenney has said his government would not legislate on judicially settled hot button issues like abortion.

Kenney told reporters Friday he is keeping to that commitment because Williams isn't in cabinet and therefore isn't formally part of the UCP government.


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Kim Trynacity