Physicians in Ontario who object to performing abortions or euthanasia on moral or religious grounds must refer patients who request those procedures to another willing doctor, the Ontario Superior Court ruled last week.
A group of Christian doctors and professional organizations argued the policy, enacted by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), was tantamount to forcing doctors to take part in the procedures themselves. The objecting organizations, including the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, Canadian Physicians for Life, and the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, said the policy infringes on rights to freedom of religion and conscience guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Ontario Superior Court justices said that, while the policy does ultimately violate physicians’ rights to religious freedom, such limits are justified when weighed in balance with the need to ensure access to care for vulnerable patients.
“We’re very disappointed,” Larry Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, told me. “The courts held that our human right to religious freedom was being violated … that the damage to the applicants was serious, and … that there was no proof that conscientious objection actually negatively impacted access. So we’re left wondering why the court didn’t ask the college to go back, meet with us, and come up with a proposal” that would provide access to the procedures and protect doctors’ rights.
According to Worthen, the CPSO policy and the court’s ruling are already affecting healthcare in Ontario. He said his organization knows of doctors who, trapped between the tenets of their faith and the policy’s demands, have moved to other provinces, limited their practices to try to reduce the risk, or closed their practices completely.
“This is a disappointing decision and puts our doctors—doctors who entered the field of medicine to provide quality, compassionate, and patient-centered care—in an impossible position,” Canada Physicians for Life president Ryan Wilson said in a statement. “Ultimately it is patient care that suffers, as our doctors will retire early, relocate, or change fields.”
The alliance of Christian medical groups is considering appealing the court’s ruling.
“This has a very serious impact on physicians who have faith,” Worthen said. “If you follow the logic that the issue of access can trump religious freedom, then what’s to say that you can’t force someone to actually do euthanasia?”
The ruling came a little more than a week after furor arose over wording in a government grant application process for summer jobs that requires organizations to check a box indicating respect for reproductive rights, including an individual’s right to an abortion. Asked whether the requirement might be extended to other programs and applications in the future, Canadian Minister of Employment, Workforce Development, and Labour Patty Hadju refused to rule out the possibility.