Edmonton

Conscience rights bill 'unnecessary,' AMA president says in letter to health minister

In a letter Wednesday to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, AMA president Dr. Christine Molnar said Bill 207 is unnecessary as there area already standards in place allowing health care providers to exercise their conscience rights.

Critics say bill would limit access to abortion, medically assisted dying

UCP MLA Dan Williams participated in the March for Life at the Alberta legislature last spring. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC)

The Alberta Medical Association is warning that a new private member's bill on conscience rights is creating anxiety for patients and physicians and could create unintended consequences by impeding access to health care in Alberta.

In a letter Wednesday to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, AMA president Dr. Christine Molnar said Bill 207 is unnecessary as there are already standards in place allowing health care providers to exercise their conscience rights. 

"The bill has generated attention and anxiety among physicians and patients. This is regrettable since it is avoidable," Molnar wrote.

"From our perspective, the bill is unnecessary.

"The more serious issue is that the bill may have unintended consequences in limiting patient access to services. 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." 

The private member's bill, introduced last week by Peace River UCP MLA Dan Williams, aims to protect the conscience rights of health care providers or a religious health facility, allowing them to refuse to perform services that go against their personal beliefs, such as abortion and medical assistance in dying. 

If it became law as proposed, it would remove a requirement for providers to refer patients to another physician and prohibit professional organizations from hearing complaints about the refusal of service or compelling a member to perform a procedure.

Williams was not available for an interview Wednesday but issued a written statement. 

"I disagree with Dr. Molnar's view that the bill is unnecessary — while she correctly points out that these protections already exist and I agree with her assertion that they are appropriate and effective, committing these rights to law will provide greater certainty and clarity for health care workers," he wrote. 

"This bill will not limit patients' access to these services. Around the province health care professionals have thoughtfully and collaboratively dealt with these issues in order to ensure patients have access to health services while protecting the conscience rights of providers."

Williams has openly spoken about his opposition to abortion. He said his bill reasserts the rights to freedom of conscience and religion protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

But critics say the bill could be used to limit access to abortion or give health care providers the ability to refuse service to LGBTQ patients.

The bill was introduced for first reading on Thursday and referred to the Standing Committee on Private Bills and Private Members Bills for consideration before returning to the legislature.