It turns out that my right to die may be affected by the religion of my doctor. A group of five doctors and three professional organizations has taken the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) to court, claiming that a CPSO policy violates their right to freedom of religion and conscience as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Religion vs access to health care
While, of course, this is an issue for anyone who might have a medical need that offends a doctor’s religion or conscience, it has particular resonance for women because of the long-fought and apparently never-over fight for the right to make our own choices with respect to reproduction.
This round of doctors claiming moral superiority about my health care comes about in the aftermath of changes to Canadian law permitting medically assisted death in certain narrow circumstances.
It’s all about referrals
Let’s be clear about what these doctors are objecting to. They have not been told they must assist a patient who wants to die and meets the legal requirements, just as they were never told they were required to provide abortions. They have been told, through a 2015 CPSO policy, that they must refer to another medical professional any patient seeking a treatment to which the doctor has a moral objection. That is what they are opposing.
A referral! Nothing more, and yet the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies and our old anti-choice friends, Canadian Physicians for Life, along with five individual Ontario doctors, claim this itself is an infringement of their Charter-protected rights and have asked an Ontario court to strike down this requirement.
Who’s who in this case?
The case – heard the week of June 12 in Toronto, with a decision expected later this year — has attracted a number of intervenors on both sides of the issue. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Dying with Dignity, the HIV and AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health are among those who have intervened in support of the CPSO policy.
It’s about a lot more than the right to die
It is hard for those of us of a certain age not to feel as though we have been catapulted either back to the days when we fought for a woman’s right to choose (a right that we are barely hanging on to, given the lack of access to abortion in many, especially rural and remote, parts of this country) or directly into The Handmaid’s Tale.
And let’s not kid ourselves: while these doctors are framing their legal arguments around end of life issues, if they are successful in having that provision removed from the CPSO policy, the door will open on all kinds of other medical treatments their consciences object to: HIV/AIDS, contraception, abortion, medical services for trans folks, and on could go the list.
It’s not complicated, actually
There is plenty of emotional rhetoric floating around this case, especially from the religious side. For some well-reasoned thinking on the issue, I encourage you to read the Dying with Dignity factum, which contains the following statement:
“the policies [of the CPSO] appropriately accommodate and balance the rights of vulnerable, grievously ill individuals seeking to end their suffering through MAID (medical assistance in dying) with the rights of doctors who do not wish to participate in MAID.”
It really is that simple. You can have your religious beliefs about anything from start of life issues like contraception and abortion to end of life issues like when to die and everything in between. I may not like them, but they are yours to have. That’s your right.
But when you are a professional, being paid by the government of Ontario, if you won’t provide the service yourself, the least you can do is refer me to someone who will. That’s my right.