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Health Law Blog

Doctors’ Religious Beliefs vs. Patients’ Rights: The Thin Edge of the Wedge

August 1, 2014

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 judgement 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 right”.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has joined the debate, giving the public, professionals and other stakeholders until August 5 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 are casting their vote and adding 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 beliefs.

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 beliefs.

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