In case you've missed it, there is currently a heated
discussion raging over whether doctors who refuse to provide
treatment on moral or religious grounds are protected under the
Ontario Human Rights Code, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
While not a new issue, the current brou ha ha is related to an
incident surrounding a 25 year-old Ontario woman who was unable
to receive birth control at a walk-in clinic because the doctor on
duty only provided one form of birth control, natural family
planning, due to "medical judgment as well as professional
ethical concerns and religious values". The young woman left
the clinic feeling "truly embarrassed" because of
"something that someone thinks is shameful and not
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario joined the
debate, giving the public, professionals and other stakeholders the
opportunity to answer the question: Do you think a physician
should be allowed to refuse to provide a patient with a treatment
or procedure because it conflicts with the physician's
religious or moral beliefs?
Physicians, the media, and the public at large cast their vote
and added their comments, calling it everything from a gender
issue, to a moral issue, to a health issue. I call it the thin edge
of the wedge.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants every
Canadian the right to entertain such religious beliefs as they
choose. It does not, however, grant the right to impose those
beliefs on others. But imagine a world where professionals
were allowed to decide whether or not to impose those
beliefs by offering or denying services based on personal
Would it be a place where a 16 year-old rape victim is forced to
endure the life-altering trauma of an unfortunate pregnancy
because, the night she's rushed to a walk in clinic to obtain
the morning after pill, the sole doctor on duty refuses her because
he only offers his patients natural family planning? Is it where a
doctor in a small rural community essentially sentences a mother
and child to a life of extreme hardship by refusing to arrange an
abortion of a severely disabled fetus because abortion goes against
his religious beliefs?
If we allow this for doctors, won't we have to allow it for
other professionals? Should pharmacists get to decide what kind of
medications they will or won't dispense to their clientele?
Should a Jewish lawyer be allowed to turn down a client because
they are a Muslim or a Holocaust denier? Does a teacher have the
right to leave out parts of the provincial curriculum at her
discretion if it goes against her beliefs? As I've said,
it's the thin edge of the wedge.
Back in this world, the College of Physicians and Surgeons is
listening carefully to the debate and will subsequently review
their current policy. One possible outcome might be suggesting
doctors don't practice certain types of medicine if there is a
chance it will compromise their beliefs. So, for example, an
individual who does not believe in anything but natural family
planning should perhaps not go into family practice or be the only
physician on duty at a walk-in clinic where there is a good chance
individuals will come to access contraception.
Whatever they decide, let's hope the College takes into
account the fact that, while doctors do have the right to their
religious beliefs, they do not have the right to be a doctor.
That is a privilege and along with that privilege is their
responsibility to do no harm, even if that trumps their religious
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