Bill 207 was introduced in the legislature by Peace River’s UCP MLA Dan Williams.
“Health-care providers should never have to choose between their most deeply held beliefs and their job,” Williams said in a news release. “This bill commits to law the first enumerated right in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, freedom of conscience, and strengthens existing protections.
“Let me be clear, this bill not only protects freedom of conscience, but it also in no way limits access to health-care services in the province.”
Two NDP MLAs suggested they were concerned that Williams’ bill could be an attempt to reopen the debate on whether women should have access to abortions.
“The Charter is the protection of the Charter,” NDP MLA and health critic David Shepherd said. “I don’t see a reason that we bring in provincial legislation….
“Frankly, doctors have that protection. I think this seems clear, given Mr. Williams’ background, given the associations that he’s had, that this is intended to try and open the door for more conversation about limiting reproductive rights.”
Shepherd said he also worries Williams’ bill could open the door to restricting access to medical care for transgender or LGBTQ people.
Earlier this year, Williams posted a photo of himself at a pro-life rally at the Alberta legislature in which he thanked “all who came to voice your deeply held beliefs.”
“For (Premier) Jason Kenney to reopen this debate, it’s shameful,” said NDP MLA Janis Irwin.
Williams has said his bill is in response to an Appeal Court of Ontario ruling earlier this year.
That ruling affirmed a lower court ruling that found physicians who object on moral grounds to contentious issues like abortion must offer patients an “effective referral” to another health provider. The court called it a fair compromise, but groups including Canadian Physicians for Life have indicated they believe it amounts to a violation of their rights.
Presently, the College of Physicians of Surgeons of Alberta asks doctors who do not want to provide these services to offer patients timely access to another option for service.
Before debate began at the legislature on Thursday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro was asked if he would support Williams’ bill.
“I actually haven’t read it yet,” he told reporters. “So I look forward to having a chance to read Member Williams’ bill.”
Shandro added that conscience rights are already “confirmed in the codes of practice for all the colleges of the health professions” and that he generally supports the conscience rights of professionals.
When asked for a response to some suggesting Williams’ bill is aimed at starting a debate over whether to restrict women’s right to access abortions, Shandro said “it’s very clear that our government is not reopening this debate.”
“I don’t think that’s the case at all,” the minister said.
“Abortion is a legal health service… I’m the health minister so my job is to make sure that all patients have access to all legal health services in Alberta.”
When asked to comment before debate got underway, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said she had also not had a chance to read Williams’ bill. She was then asked if she believes in conscience rights for medical providers.
“Yes, I do actually,” she said. “I believe we live in a pluralistic society with many different views and individuals have the right to their freedom of conscience.”
–With files from The Canadian Press’ Dean Bennett