Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford pounced on a potential wedge issue in Alberta's election campaign Wednesday, saying she's "frightened" by the Wildrose Party's support of "conscience rights," or the right of a professional to refuse to provide a service, such as an abortion, on religious or other grounds.
The issue bubbled up this week after a Wildrose supporter quit the party and wrote a blog about conscience rights, which she opposed. If such rights were enacted into law, a marriage commissioner could potentially refuse to perform a same-sex ceremony, or a physician could refuse an abortion.
The issue is more ideological than practical in Alberta, where abortions are typically performed at specialized, publicly funded clinics – doctors who don't want to perform them simply don't have to work there. But it extends to other health professionals, including pharmacists providing emergency contraception and physicians in hospitals, where abortions are also performed.
Nonetheless, Ms. Smith (a libertarian in a party with a socially conservative base) was asked repeatedly about it on Wednesday but refused to reveal her own beliefs – something Ms. Redford hopes becomes a "fundamental issue" in the campaign.
Ms. Smith only said that Wildrose would set up a judicial process to review objections by medical professionals or marriage commissioners who refuse a service. Ms. Smith wouldn't say whether she backed the rights, only that she takes "marching orders" from voters.
"We want to set up a separate division of the provincial court to deal with these exact kind of complaints, so that real courts and real lawyers with real rules of evidence would be able to decide them," Ms. Smith said Wednesday.
Despite Ms. Smith's plan, her party has supported conscience rights in the past.
In a list of party principles approved at the Wildrose annual general meeting last year, members voted in a clause that reads: "Wildrose members believe the Government of Alberta should…implement legislation protecting the 'conscience rights' of health-care professionals." Ms. Smith also told the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association that "Wildrose will ensure conscience rights for marriage commissioners and health professionals," according to a summary of candidate positions published by the association in August, 2011.
Ms. Redford, who opposes the notion of conscience rights, eagerly responded to a reporter when asked about it Wednesday, hoping it will cast the Wildrose as a hard-right party and win back supporters.
"I was very frightened to hear the discussion today.… I certainly respect people's personal beliefs, but I believe in a province where we have to treat individuals with dignity and respect. We have to live in a community where we respect diversity and we understand that everyone feels safe and included," Ms. Redford said.
She said doctors would be expected to prescribe birth control and perform abortions, regardless of personal beliefs, to ensure that "all of the unique families in this province have the opportunity to know that when they're accessing services, they can trust those services can be provided. And when they take on professional responsibilities, I expect them to be able to meet those professional responsibilities. I think it's a critical discussion in this election."
On Twitter, Wildrose supporters dismissed Ms. Redford's complaints, saying she was trying to raise fears of a Wildrose hidden agenda. Three years ago, the PCs, under the leadership of former premier Ed Stelmach, passed Bill 44, a contentious law that allows parents to pull their children out of class during discussion of religious, sexual orientation and sexuality.
"It was a complete slap in the face" to gay rights supporters, said Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who was an outspoken critic of Bill 44. "I think of anyone [the PCs]have the least right to speak out on this [issue] At least Wildrose has been clear all along even if Danielle is being coy today, but the Tories always try and pretend they don't understand the issue."
Ms. Blakeman said the issue of conscience rights for medical professionals is clear to her. "I think it's pretty clear that when you take on a job and are given a job description, you do it," she said. Last year, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld the principle that those sworn to carry out certain tasks cannot unilaterally pick and choose which parts of their job they will perform. That case involved a marriage commissioner refusing to perform same-sex marriages.
The Wildrose says conscience rights cases will be among those heard by justices in a new Human Rights Division of the Alberta provincial court. Anyone filing a complaint and needing legal aid will be referred to a roster of "human rights advocates."
These advocates will have specialized training in human rights law and be in good standing with the Law Society of Alberta. The division will be funded with money currently used for the Alberta Human Rights Commission, which Wildrose plans to scrap.
With a report from The Canadian Press