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Oppose Alberta Bill 207: "Abandoning Patients Act"

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Bill 207 is a private member’s bill introduced Nov 7 in the Alberta legislature by UCP MLA Dan Williams, misleadingly titled Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act.

The bill contravenes patients’ rights and is unconstitutional. It must be opposed and defeated.

The bill is more aptly named the Abandoning Patients Act because it is a license for medical negligence. Health care professionals can refuse to provide a health care service they disagree with for personal or religious reason (so-called “conscientious objection”) – with complete impunity.

The bill removes existing patient protections, including their right to a referral, and their ability to make a complaint or launch a lawsuit if a health care professional denies them care or medicine for alleged “conscience” reasons. This means that patients would have zero recourse for any harms done by treatment refusals. In effect, the bill would allow healthcare professionals to mistreat or abandon patients because there is no accountability or oversight.

Allowing this bill to move forward violates Premier Jason Kenney’s promise to not “re-open the abortion debate.” The primary goal of the bill is to reduce access to abortion services, as “conscience” bills like this are on the wish list of anti-choice groups in Canada, and have been introduced federally several times by anti-choice Members of Parliament.

However, this bill attempts to disguise its attack on abortion by expanding care denials to any type of healthcare. Besides abortion, the most common services that could be denied under this bill are contraception and other reproductive healthcare, medical assistance in dying, and LGBTQ2 care. Further, it’s possible that care deniers could interpret the bill as allowing discriminatory refusals of any health care service to disadvantaged groups based on their identity, such as the LGBTQ2 community or ethnic/religious minorities. The impacts of this bill would hit women and disadvantaged communities the hardest.

The Abandoning Patients Act is unconstitutional because of the May 2019 decision by Ontario’s highest court, which ruled that doctors who refuse care for “conscience” reasons must provide an effective referral to someone who can provide the service. The court called it a compromise that balances the Charter rights of physicians and the interests of patients, who would suffer harm if doctors refused to give referrals.

Bill 207 contains many other extreme measures:

  • The “right” to deny care is extended to all regulated health professions, including doctors, pharmacists, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, midwives, social workers, and many others.
  • Patient referrals are defined as a health care service that can be denied, both formal and informal referrals.
  • Religious healthcare organizations can deny care under “conscience”– even though only individuals have a conscience. The bill would allow Catholic hospitals to refuse any care that conflicts with their religious doctrine. They would not be required to provide referrals, options, or information.
  • Employers of health care workers cannot "discriminate" against them if they refuse to do their jobs under the guise of "conscience" – that is, employers can’t fire or discipline them or decline to hire them.
  • Authority over “conscientious objection” is removed from regulatory bodies such as the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) and the Alberta College of Pharmacy, even though it’s their mandate to set and enforce standards and codes of conduct.
  • The bill overrides current guidelines for “conscientious objection” from the CPSA. This means the CPSA can no longer require care deniers to refer patients, to provide accurate information and not withhold information, and to not promote their own moral/religious beliefs. Further, the CPSA cannot discipline care deniers for “unprofessional conduct” and cannot accept patient complaints about treatment refusals.
  • The bill adds "conscientious beliefs" as a new protected ground in the Alberta Human Rights Act, along with race, gender, disability, etc. That goes far beyond so-called "conscience rights" in healthcare. For example, it could allow any business owner or employer to refuse to serve or hire people from the LGBTQ2 community, on the basis that doing so would violate their “conscientious beliefs” and discriminate against them.

A note on Section 2(2) of Bill 207, which reads: “For greater certainty, nothing in this Act derogates from a health care provider’s or religious health care organization’s obligations to their patients, which may include informing individuals of options in respect of receiving a health care service.” This section is meaningless because it contradicts the bill itself. The entire objective of the bill is to allow health care professionals to shirk their fiduciary obligations to patients for alleged “conscience” reasons (which they do not have to explain or justify). Further, the phrase about “informing individuals of options” is vague and opens the door to giving inaccurate information to patients and referring them to anti-choice agencies.

The petition signers ask the members of the Alberta legislative assembly to please oppose and defeat Bill 207, the Abandoning Patients Act.



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