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Doctors, Leave Your Hearts At Home?

On the challenges of being a Christian health care provider in Canada.

The Alberta legislature is set to restart the debate over a contentious law that could affect the working conditions of Christian doctors and other medical professionals. Bill 207 seeks to protect physicians’ rights to take no part in medical procedures that go against their consciences. While doctors in Alberta are currently not required to participate, there are fears that changes in regulatory rules that have already happened in other provinces could make it impossible for physicians to care for their patients.

Since 2016, regulatory bodies like the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) have required physicians who object to providing controversial procedures like MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) to refer their patients to someone who will. Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Jewish physicians who are unable to refer because of their personal convictions informed by their respective faiths are faced with a stark choice – either do what the regulations require or leave the practice of medicine.

“Any referral that I make, I have to believe in,” explains psychiatrist Dr. Janice Halpern when asked why she supports the protection of conscience rights. “I have to believe that I’m helping the patient. If I don’t, I would be betraying myself and my patient.”

As the government considers expanding the criteria for MAID to include patients whose primary diagnosis is psychiatric, those who have advance directives and even children, many more doctors will be left wondering if they can continue to do their jobs in good faith.

The Canadian context
Similar debates have already played out in other Canadian provinces, with varied results. In 2017, Manitoba enshrined protections for physicians, nurses and pharmacists who refuse to perform or aid in MAID on moral grounds.

Winnipeg Emergency Room Physician Dr. Ann McKenzie is thankful the decision went that way. “Having suffered the anguish of losing someone to suicide, I think, makes me feel even more strongly that participating in a suicide is the last thing I would want to do.”

In Ontario, the debate saw a different resolution. In May of 2019, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that physicians must continue to provide referrals even if they have a moral objection to the procedure. The Christian Medical and Dental Association (CMDA), along with other professional organizations representing approximately 1,500 of Ontario’s 31,500 physicians, continue to oppose the ruling. No appeal will be taken to the Supreme Court of Canada. This coalition argues that such regulations infringe on health care providers’ constitutional right to freedom of conscience and religion. Each provincial government must be encouraged to have legislation that protects conscience rights so that physicians, nurses, pharmacists and others will not be forced to participate in procedures like euthanasia against their will.

Practicing in good faith
Many doctors in Canada who hold traditional Christian values feel marginalized in their secular work environments. “When I hear someone say that physicians should leave their morality at home, I don’t think they mean I should leave my honesty or my compassion,” says Dr. Dan Reilly. “What they want me to leave at home is certain moral opinions.” But if Canada truly is a country that champions diversity, then there needs to be space for all health care providers regardless of faith to do their work with a clear conscience.   

Christian psychiatrist Dr. Randy Goossen sees a correlation between the hope he finds in his faith and the care he gives his patients. “Our role as psychiatrists is to search for hope and to be there for clients, to be able to see where they do not see, to direct them to the light, to the hope, that they might not be seeing at the moment.” But being involved in a patient’s access to MAID stands in direct contradiction to this calling, says Goossen.

What is Christ calling us to do in this environment? We must offer the hope that comes from the relationship we have with our Saviour. The secular solution is to ask doctors to ignore the impact their faith might have on their work. This approach offers no hope for humanity – it will lead to a complete lack of meaning in our work and force many well qualified physicians to leave patient care. Only Christ is the answer – we must propose rather than impose the gospel message on a society which is hungry for the truth.

 

Make Your Voice Heard

In one successful campaign in Manitoba, 14,000 people wrote letters to legislators supporting Bill 34 to protect conscience rights. A similar campaign in Saskatchewan has generated over 15,000 letters. If you support the protection of conscience rights for health care providers, please visit canadiansforconscience.ca and write to politicians in your province.

  • Larry is Executive Director of the Christian Medical and Dental Association of Canada. He resides in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia with his wife, Dr. Linda Gagnon who is a family physician. They have two children and five grandsons.

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