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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who formed government this past spring, fended off accusations during the campaign that a UCP government would reopen debates about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

A United Conservative backbencher tabled a private member’s bill in the Alberta Legislature that would protect doctors who morally object to medical procedures, such as abortion and assisted dying, from being compelled to refer patients to willing physicians.

The bill from Dan Williams, who represents the northern Alberta riding of Peace River, opens a debate about a divisive social issue that Premier Jason Kenney promised would not come up if his party formed government. Bill 207 passed first reading with a result that fell along party lines, with several UCP cabinet ministers voting in favour.

It was also tabled six months after the Ontario Court of Appeal issued a ruling that upheld a requirement in that province that doctors provide “effective referrals" to patients in such cases. Mr. Williams said the legislation is designed to prevent the same thing from happening in Alberta.

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Mr. Williams, who declined an interview request, said in a statement that the bill would ensure that doctors would not have to choose between their jobs and “their most deeply held beliefs." He argued that the legislation would not limit access to health-care services.

Under the bill, health-care providers would not be required to provide health-care services, including “the provision of a formal or informal referral,” if doing so would violate their “conscientious beliefs." The bill would make it illegal for regulatory bodies, such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, to impose such a requirement.

Mr. Kenney, who formed government this past spring, fended off accusations during the campaign that a UCP government would reopen debates about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. The New Democrats pointed to Mr. Kenney’s past anti-abortion activism to cast him and other members of his party as extreme social conservatives.

Mr. Kenney was not in the legislature for the vote, although votes on first reading are typically seen as a formality for which many members of the House are often absent. The Premier’s press secretary, Christine Myatt, said in e-mail that Bill 207 is not a government bill and that all members of the assembly have the right to propose such legislation. She said the Premier expects “a fulsome and respectful debate.”

Outside the legislature, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the government has no intention of reopening the debate about abortion access, though he said he supports conscience rights for doctors. He said he hadn’t seen the bill yet and did not address the issue of referrals.

The Opposition New Democrats have argued that the bill is an attempt to attack abortion access through the back door.

“For Jason Kenney to reopen this debate, it’s shameful,” said Janis Irwin, the party’s critic for women’s issues.

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The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta’s standards of practice allow doctors to decline to perform procedures they object to on moral grounds. However, doctors are also required to ensure patients are offered access to another doctor willing to perform the procedure or to a resource that will provide that information.

In May, the Ontario Court of Appeal issued a unanimous ruling that physicians who object to a procedure on moral grounds must offer their patients an “effective referral” to another doctor. Several groups including the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada challenged a College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario rule that said doctors must provide an effective referral in such cases.

The court ruled that it was a reasonable limit on the religious freedom to require doctors to connect patients with willing providers. The case wasn’t appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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