Doctors on religious right can’t play God with patient choices
Ontario’s top court has ruled for a balance of rights, Michele Mandel says.
Doctors can’t just turn their backs on patients seeking medical services that go against the doctors’ religious views.
The conscientious objectors don’t have to perform the disputed medical procedure themselves — whether it’s medically assisted death abortion or gender reassignment surgery — but Ontario’s highest court has unanimously upheld the requirement obligating physicians to refer that patient to another health-care provider so they can get the care they need.
And no, handing them a phone number for Telehealth isn’t enough.
It’s a welcome decision, especially in light of the insanity going on south of the border.
Just this week, 25 men of the Alabama senate passed a bill virtually banning any abortion,
even for a victim of rape or incest, except to save the mother’s life, and even then, a second doctor must sign off.
Texas lawmakers are considering not only outlawing all abortions but also imposing the death sentence on any provider and woman who undergoes the procedure.
Ontario doctors on the religious right tried to argue their almighty belief system should allow them to restrict access to health care they find morally repugnant: not only abortion, birth control and medically assisted death, but also infertility treatments and prescriptions for erectile dysfunction medication.
But who made them God? Of course, doctors have the right to morally disagree with such services on religious grounds. They have the right not to perform them.
But what they don’t have is the right to impose their personal views on their patients — especially not in a publicly funded system where the care being sought is perfectly legal.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario requires physicians unwilling to provide a service on moral or religious grounds to offer an “effective referral” to another health-care provider.
The Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, Canadian Physicians for Life and five doctors argued that policy violates their freedom of religion and conscience protected by the Charter.
Last year, the Divisional Court unanimously found doctors’ rights don’t trump those of their patients.
The Ontario Court of Appeal went through a similar balancing exercise and has reached the same conclusion.
“Vulnerable patients,” wrote Chief Justice George R. Strathy on behalf of the three-judge panel, “seeking MAiD (medical assistance in dying), abortion, contraception and other aspects of sexual health care turn to their family physicians for advice, care and, if necessary, medical treatment or intervention. Given the importance of family physicians as ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘patient navigators’ in the health-care system, there is compelling evidence that patients will suffer harm in the absence of an effective referral.”
The Christian doctor groups had argued that even the simple act of referring these patients makes them complicit in the “sin” and the most they could do is offer a general information number.
But the court rightly found that would unfairly put the onus on vulnerable patients to try to seek out their own care at a difficult time.
“This may result in delay in obtaining time-sensitive medical services or it may foreclose access to care altogether. One can reasonably anticipate that the loss of the personal support of a trusted physician would leave the patient with feelings of rejection, shame and stigma. Left to their own devices when he or she most needs personal support and advice, the patient would be left to negotiate the health system armed with brochures, telephone numbers and websites.”
The decision concludes: “As members of a regulated and publicly funded profession, they are subject to requirements that focus on the public interest, rather than their interests.”
That may be a cross these doctors cannot bear.
If so, it’s time they found another calling.