Health care professionals descended on Queen’s Park May 18 in support of a Progressive Conservative private member’s bill regarding conscience rights. From left to right: Dr. Jane Dobson, pharmacist James Brown, Dr. Doug Mark, Dr. Kulvinder Gill, nurse Helen McGee, medical student Lauren Mai and Dr. Stephen Vanderklippe. Photo by Michael Swan

Health care workers bring case for conscience rights to Ontario legislature

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  • May 18, 2017

Armed with letters of support from religious community leaders, plus the official positions of the Ontario, Canadian and American Medical Associations, health care professionals descended on Queen’s Park May 18 in support of a Progressive Conservative private members’ bill that would shield doctors from punishment by the College of Physicians and Surgeons and other regulatory bodies if they refuse to refer for medically assisted suicide

As the doctors entered the provincial legislature at 9 a.m., security staff warned the doctors they would not be allowed to sit in the public gallery that rings the law makers if they wear their scrubs, as that would be considered a form of protest.

Wearing her scrubs, Concerned Ontario Doctors president Dr. Kulvinder Gill made the case for Conservative health critic Jeff Yurek’s Bill 129 at a 9:45 a.m. press conference.

“We are all standing here united in protection of basic human rights. We are all human,” said Gill, flanked by other doctors, a pharmacist and a nurse, all of whom face potential loss of their licence to practice if they refuse to make an “effective referral” for medical assistance in dying (MAID) or dispense lethal doses of drugs in the case of pharmacists.

The conscience protection bill will be debated at second reading in the legislature between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on May 18. If passed, the bill would be referred to committee for study, but is unlikely to come back to legislators before the summer break.

An earlier attempt to amend provincial legislation that clears the way for assisted suicide failed when the governing Liberals voted down changes to Bill 84, passed May 10.

“Ontario stands completely alone in denying physicians the freedom of conscience — a fundamental human right, protected under both the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Gill said.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s rule that all doctors must send patients on for MAID assessments when asked is having a chilling effect on palliative care, given the vast majority (73 per cent in one survey) of palliative care doctors who cannot reconcile their understanding of palliative care with causing the death of their patients, Gill said. In Scarborough, every palliative care doctor has stopped accepting new patients, according to Gill.

MaiLauren web“Is conscientious objection now a reason for discrimination?” asked Lauren Mai, a medical student who took time out from studying for her licensing exam to take part in the day of lobbying MPPs for conscience rights May 18. (Photo by Michael Swan)

Gill said she’s heard from family doctors across the province who are considering early retirement or moving out of the province.

Wingham family physician Stephen Vanderklippe said opposition to the College of Physicians and Surgeons “effective referral” policy has been a grassroots movement.

“It feels like the grassroots have been ignored,” he said.

Vanderklippe argued that doctors taught or forced to ignore their conscience can’t practice good medicine because conscience is embedded in every medical decision.

“Our desire is to provide excellent care of the people of Ontario. We cannot do that without conscience protection,” he said.

Medical student Lauren Mai took time out from studying for her licensing exam to take part in the day of lobbying MPPs for conscience rights. Talk of a morals test to screen out students who object to doctor assisted suicide, as advocated by Queen’s University medical ethicist Udo Schuklenk, or shunting objecting doctors off into sports medicine, pathology and plastic surgery, would distort the entire practice of medicine, Mai said.

“Is conscientious objection now a reason for discrimination?” she asked.

Mai has studied to be a neurologist.

Bill 84 did create a care co-ordination service, which would allow patients to self-refer for MAID assessments, but it leaves in place College of Physicians and Surgeons and other regulatory college rules that would force doctors, nurses and pharmacists to refer or participate. In Alberta, a similar self-referral system is in place along with specific protection for medical professionals who object.

The Alberta system works well and provides adequate access for patients who choose assisted suicide, Gill said.

Hamilton family doctor Jane Dobson called the Ontario system “ridiculous, unnecessary and it will result in less care available to patients.”

“Patients will be directly harmed by the absence of conscience protection,” Dobson said. “A functioning conscience is the best guarantee for patients.”

If Bill 129 fails, doctors and allied professionals will continue to protest against policies forcing them to refer for assisted suicide, said Gill. A court case that will test the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario regulations against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms will be heard in June in an Ontario court, but is likely to be appealed from there all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, no matter who wins – a process likely to drag on for years.

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