The conscience of a doctor

09/07/2014 / Abortion 

The following article was published in the National Post on Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) is asking for public input as part of its regular review of policy guidelines. At issue in this current review is the right of doctors to refuse to provide certain treatments based on religious or moral grounds.

There will always be some tension between the moral convictions of an individual medical professional who adheres to his or her own worldview and the different procedures that are legally available in a pluralistic society. The current CPSO guidelines recognize this tension. In an effort to balance competing interests, the policy allows doctors to refrain from performing non-emergency procedures should the procedures violate their individual conscience.

It is always beneficial to review policies and guidelines, especially those pertaining to the health and wellbeing of Canadians. But the current review and discussion over CPSO guidelines is not about improving care for residents of Ontario. Instead, it seems to be about forcing medical professionals to set aside their own worldview and adopt a conflicting one.

To be clear, we are not talking about providing health-care services where a patient’s life is at risk. No, when a discussion about conscience-protection takes place it is almost always surrounding issues such as like infant male circumcision, prescribed birth control, certain types of medications, medicinal marijuana, or an abortion procedure. In the future, this list may very well include euthanasia or assisted suicide.

On occasion, the tension between the conscience of a doctor and the desire of a patient is experienced in a tangible way. Kate Desjardins is a 25-year-old Ottawa resident who, earlier this year, entered a walk-in clinic to have her prescription for birth control renewed. However, this was not a routine visit. As Ms. Desjardins quickly found out, the doctor on duty did not prescribe contraceptives. Although Ms. Desjardins’ life wasn’t in danger and she could most certainly have secured a prescription renewal at any number of surrounding clinics, her experience has been highlighted by those pushing to have the conscience objection nullified by the CPSO.

Clearly this isn’t about adequate and timely access to health-care, both of which were still available to Ms. Desjardins. Essentially, this is about a patient’s right to access all medical services from any doctor of his or her choosing. It’s not about availability of services, but about imposing morality on all physicians, to the point where doctors need to violate their own conscience in order to serve their patients.

Justin Trudeau was chastised from a wide variety of Canadians when he decided to impose his worldview on the Liberal Party of Canada by forcing Liberal MPs to violate their consciences in the event that an abortion law ever made it to a vote in Parliament. The same principle applies in the present debate surrounding conscience protection for physicians. This is a battle about conflicting worldviews, not adequate access to healthcare. The target of leftist ideologues include all those who hold to a worldview (religious or otherwise) opposed to their own. So, who actually is forcing their religion on whom?

On the one hand, we have doctors arguing for their freedom of conscience, which is guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And on the other, we have patients who believe they have the right to a medical procedure from any physician of their choosing. If the object of the CPSO guidelines is to balance rights and obligations, then taking away conscience objections would throw balance out the window altogether.

Conscience-protection guidelines are vital if we are to have a well functioning and vibrant health care system. As Dr. Margaret Somerville, the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University said recently, “Do you really want to be treated by a doctor who doesn’t care if he thinks that he’s doing something unconscionable or unethical or immoral?”

Canadians are not perishing because doctors won’t take part in elective, non-emergency medical procedures. That someone was offended because they had to walk a few extra blocks to renew their birth control prescription does not justify the CPSO forcing doctors to contravene their Charter-protected freedom of conscience.

National Post

Mike Schouten is the director of, a campaign to build support for laws protecting pre-born children.

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