What’s Conscience got to do with it?
It’s day two of the fight for conscience rights in Ontario court. I spoke with Larry Worthen, the Executive Director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society, to get to the bottom of this issue.
Ashley Crowley: It’s day two of your court case against the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) for their policies which force doctors to provide effective referrals for assisted dying. Can you explain what an effective referral is?
Larry Worthen: Well, effective referral is essentially the doctor must contact another doctor and set up an appointment between the patient and the physician who will do the assessment for medical aid in dying, and then continue to follow the patient.
AC: Your organization argues that forcing medical professionals to provide an effective referral violates conscience protection. Why does an effective referral violate conscience protection?
LW: Because our doctors consider that an effective referral means that you’re an accomplice or that you’re complicit with the actual medical aid in dying.
AC: In what way do they feel they are an accomplice?
LW: Well, let’s say, for instance, that someone came to you and asked for drugs – illegal drugs – and you said well I can’t provide that I don’t have those, but if you go and see my friend down the street, he will provide that for you. Well, you would essentially be a party to the offence under our criminal law. So it works the same way with moral teaching that, basically, by providing an effective referral, you are essentially facilitating the process of the person accessing something that you consider to be morally wrong. To consider something to be morally wrong and yet ask someone else to do it is morally equivalent to doing it yourself.
AC: As a Christian organization, why are you fighting to protect conscience rights?
LW: We are fighting to protect conscience rights so our doctors can continue to integrate their Christian faith with medical practice. If they are forced to do something against their conscience, it will either affect their faith or will make it impossible for them to practice medicine. Two weeks ago, we had 168 doctors write the College [CPSO] to tell them that they are unable to provide an effective referral, so doctors are already acting out in civil disobedience against this rule.
AC: Every other district in the world that has legalized assisted dying has put some sort of measure in place to accommodate conscientious objectors, except Ontario. Why do you believe the CPSO has been unwilling to make room for conscience protection?
LW: I think it’s ideological. I think that there are people who believe that society should be secular, that there should be no room for God, or religion, or conscience in the public square. And I think that they are just exercising that philosophy, that belief that they have that they feel there really is no place for faith in medicine.
AC: Should the CPSO prevail, what is at stake for the future of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience protection in Canada?
LW: Well, should the CPSO prevail… I would be very concerned about Canada as a whole. It would mean that a particular philosophy, that is, secularism, has prevailed and is the predominant philosophy in the country and that no other philosophy can have a leg to stand on. So, essentially, it would mean that, if it’s upheld in this case, it would be upheld in many other cases in which other beliefs are put forward as reasonable, as acceptable beliefs in the public square. If we only have one philosophy, that is, secularism, then essentially that means that the state is no longer impartial but actually adopts a particular philosophy, which is secularism.
AC: What can people reading this do to make sure conscience rights are protected?
LW: They can go to our website, to the website for the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience, www.canadiansforconscience.ca, they can put their name down there and participate in a letter writing campaign to MLAs at the provincial level to encourage them to have legislation to protect conscience rights in each jurisdiction.
The text was transcribed from a phone interview and has been edited for clarity.
With files from Susan Ponting.