Ontario docs are leaving – patients have trouble finding good doctors


Published: Thursday, October 27, 2011, 10:58 pm |   Author: Douglas Farrow

Ontario physicians attack Freedom of Conscience

“A document that needs to be fiercely resisted”

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) has drafted a controversial policy document advising doctors “to proceed cautiously” in matters of medicine on which their “moral or religious beliefs” may touch. Indeed, it warns that it may be necessary “to set aside their personal beliefs in order to ensure that patients or potential patients are provided with the medical treatment and services they require.”

Ontario’s doctors are further warned that their Charter freedoms of religion and conscience do not trump equality rights, and that secular courts will undertake to judge any perceived conflict between the former and the latter – even to the point of deciding for them whether or not the core beliefs of their religion are infringed upon by the treatment or service in question.

This friendly advice is followed by a thinly veiled threat, aimed at those who may still intend to follow the dictates of dogma or conscience rather than those of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).“Irrespective of whether a physician’s actions are found to have violated the [Human Rights] Code,” says the document, “the physician’s conduct could constitute an act of professional misconduct.” Dissident members, in other words, may be disciplined by the College even if they escape the tribunals and courts.

It isn’t difficult to guess who the dissidents might be. They would be, for example, the doctors who will not commit abortion or refer for abortion – who perhaps will not even prescribe contraceptives or arrange for artificial reproduction or for sex-change operations, etc. Such doctors are viewed as a threat to the current human-rights regime and hence as dangerous also to the CPSO. They are dangerous, not so much because they expose the CPSO to legal scrutiny and sanction, but because, by their principled stand, they expose it (and some of their colleagues) to moral scrutiny and sanction. They must be made to support the views of those in control of the College or they must be eliminated from it, lest by their example they infect and inflame the consciences of others.

What are we to make of this attack on the liberty and integrity of Ontario’s doctors? The document in question, which the CPSO tried to bring in under the radar, has nevertheless generated a great deal of criticism and will doubtless undergo revision. Yet one can only marvel at the ethical ineptitude the present draft reveals. The CPSO seems to regard its members’ moral and religious commitments, and their consciences too, as if they were of no more significance than a nice clean lab coat that from time to time must be laid aside in favour of scrubs. At the same time, one notes, the CPSO happily foresees the judiciary getting its robes dirty deciding on the finer points of the application to medicine of religious dogma. It is quite ready, in other words, to countenance the Ontario Superior Court as a modern day magisterium, to which the OHRC and the CPSO will act as the inquisition.

One does indeed marvel, but one should no longer be surprised. The recent awarding of a snowflake to Henry Morgentaler was a clear signal of the confidence now felt by the commissars of Canada’s new moral order, which is well entrenched in the CPSO, as in many other professional bodies. That new order sets no great store by conscience, none by natural law or religion. Indeed, it finds the authority of conscience and of religion inimical to its aims. And since it cannot appeal to conscience, it must resort instead to threats and to other coercive measures.

It needs to be said, loudly and clearly, that it is not just dissident doctors who will be affected by the new policy document. All doctors will be caught in this net, not only those whom the CPSO is currently trying to fish out. Moreover, every patient or potential patient will be caught in the net as well. By restricting the freedoms of religion and of conscience for doctors, an important precedent will be set for restricting those freedoms in society at large. (I should say “another important precedent,” for this is not the first, as Chris Kempling and others can attest.)  More specifically, by restricting the right of doctors to act according to their consciences without penalty – perhaps even the loss of their medical licence? – the CPSO will restrict every citizen’s access to the services of physicians who are governed by conscience.

Consciences, of course, may be differently informed; patients and doctors, just like doctors and doctors, may differ on points of conscience. But is there anyone who prefers to be treated by a doctor who systematically, as a condition of employment, disregards conscience? Is there anyone who is comfortable with the idea that the medical profession should disavow the binding nature of conscience? Or, when it comes to it, that it should deny those whose consciences are moulded by the Judeo-Christian world view that gave birth to modern medicine the right to continue practicing medicine freely?

There is, as history has shown all too clearly, a slippery slope of intellectual and political corruption that leads medicine from the culture of life to the culture of death. What that slope is greased with (more than one ideology from the period between the wars comes to mind, as do several from the post-war period) hardly matters. Once the step is taken to deny freedom of conscience, the slide is on and cannot be stopped. For that reason, the present policy document must be fiercely resisted.

I do not mean to suggest, however, that we can afford to ignore the mode of thinking behind this document, or the ideology that drives it. Effective resistance requires rather that we confront the regnant ideology, and the new moral order its proponents have introduced, by pointing out the philosophical failures as well as the policy failures. We must identify and confront its tendencies as well as the specific steps it asks us to take. That is something I will attempt to do in Part Two of this article.

Douglas Farrow is associate professor of Christian thought at McGill University.



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