By Debapriya Chatterjee
Christian doctors are set to challenge Ontario’s College of Physicians and Surgeons over a policy that says they have to provide or at least refer appropriate medical services to patients, even if it clashes with their personal religious views. In a statement of claim filed at the Superior Court of Justice, two groups – Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies and Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada – along with five independent medical professionals, said the college’s policy infringes upon their religious rights guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
At the core of the problem is Ontario medical regulator’s vote, which was announced last month, seeking an update to the college’s human rights and professional policies. According to the new policy, doctors who are not willing to provide care, such as prescribing contraception to their patients, could refer them in good faith to a physician who does not object and is available as well as accessible to the patient. The policy also says during medical emergencies, the doctors would have to perform necessary procedures themselves, even if it clashes with their personal religious views. Any doctor that violates the policy, would face disciplinary action.
The two groups opposing this policy, however, stated in their petition that the college’s policy violates each physician’s right to freedom of religion and conscience.
“The obligation to provide an ‘effective referral’ for a procedure or pharmaceuticals to which the physician objects on moral or religious grounds is, for some physicians, unconscionable,” the applicants said in the statement of claim.
The doctors also said refusing to offer certain pharmaceuticals or procedures to patients does not necessarily violate the charter rights of patients or the Human Rights Code nor does it amount to discrimination. The applicants have called for an interim as well as a permanent injunction to ensure the updated policy is not enforced, as they appealed to the college to recognize their charter rights last month.
The college started to review its policy in 2014 after a walk-in clinic in Ottawa refused to prescribe birth control to a woman, citing religious reasons. A spokesperson at the college, however, explained that the review was part of a regular update, as the last change to the existing policy was made in 2008.
In a statement released on March 24, the college said it would defend its recently approved policy.
“The policy requires that physicians act in a manner that respects patient dignity, ensures access to care, and protects patient safety when they choose not to provide healthcare for reasons of their religion or conscience. The policy does not require physicians to perform procedures or provide treatments to which they object on religious basis, except during a medical emergency,” the college said in a statement. “We believe the policy strikes the appropriate balance between physicians’ charter rights, their professional and ethical obligations and the expectations of the public.”
The college also clarified that it made the recent changes only after a careful review, which included two public consultations.