An Alberta private member’s bill that would have protected doctors’ rights to refuse to perform procedures or refer patients for moral reasons has been voted down at committee.
The vote means the bill, which prompted allegations that the United Conservative Party government was attempting to reopen debates about abortion and assisted dying, is likely dead, with several UCP members voting against it. Critics of the bill argued it would be unconstitutional and accused Premier Jason Kenney of breaking an election promise that abortion would not be on the agenda if his party formed the government.
The proposed legislation, from UCP backbencher Dan Williams, would have ensured that doctors could not be compelled to participate in procedures that contravene their beliefs, including making “formal or informal referrals.” It would have also required regulators to throw out any complaint from a patient on an issue that involved conscience rights.
Currently, Alberta’s medical regulator requires doctors with moral objections to a procedure to either refer the patient to a willing physician or point them to a resource that can provide that information.
Mr. Williams insisted the goal was to merely keep the status quo. He said it was in response to an Ontario Court of Appeal decision from earlier this year that concluded doctors with moral objections to a procedure must provide an “effective referral” to a willing doctor.
The committee that examines private member’s bills voted 8-2 to recommend that the bill not proceed. Two UCP MLAs were the only members to vote in favour of the bill.
Janis Irwin, an NDP member of the committee, said she hasn’t seen more correspondence from the public on any other issue since she was elected this past spring.
“They [the other committee members] heard loudly and clearly from their constituents and folks across Alberta," Ms. Irwin said in an interview on Friday. “Not only is this bill unnecessary, it’s unconscionable."
She warned that the bill would have made it even more difficult for LGBTQ patients to access health-care services.
Mr. Williams did not respond to an interview request.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta said there were clear differences between the bill and its current rules, notably a requirement in the bill that doctors not be required to make any statement to a patient. Mr. Williams proposed a number of amendments earlier this week, including removing that provision, which the CPSA said brought it in “greater alignment” with its rules.
On Friday, the CPSA issued a statement reiterating that it believes its current standards of practice adequately protect both patients and doctors.
The president of the Alberta Medical Association, Christine Molnar, wrote the province earlier this month to object to the bill, calling it unnecessary and warning that it could have unintended consequences.
Ms. Molnar issued a statement on Friday that said the bill’s defeat was “most likely the best outcome,” while acknowledging that it nonetheless raised important issues.
Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, welcomed the committee’s vote. He said the proposed bill would have shifted the power of decision-making further away from patients.
“You already have a powerful entity, the doctor, and this is another layer of privilege of power being moved back towards them," Mr. Culbert said.
“If you’re in a rural setting and there’s only one doctor for your population, what do you do in that situation?"