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AMA president pens letter to UCP health minister to raise concerns over conscience rights legislation

UCP MLA’s bill on health workers’ conscience rights passes 1st reading
WATCH ABOVE: (From Nov. 7, 2019) A UCP MLA's bill meant to "commit health care providers'… [conscience] rights from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in provincial law," passed first reading at the Alberta legislature on Thursday. Chris Chacon reports.

The head of the organization that represents Alberta’s physicians has reached out to the province’s health minister to “state some concerns” about a conscience rights bill that passed first reading in the legislature last week.

“The bill has generated attention and anxiety among physicians and patients,” Alberta Medical Association president Christine Molnar wrote in a letter to Health Minister Tyler Shandro on Nov. 13.

“From our perspective, the bill is unnecessary.”

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Bill 207 was introduced in the legislature by Peace River’s UCP MLA Dan Williams. The private member’s bill is meant to “commit health care providers’… [conscience] rights from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in provincial law.”

“I disagree with Dr. Molnar’s view that the bill is unnecessary,” Williams said in an emailed statement on Wednesday. “While she correctly points out that these protections already exist and I agree with her assertion that they are appropriate and effective, committing these rights to law will provide greater certainty and clarity for health-care workers.”

READ MORE: UCP MLA’s bill on health workers’ conscience rights passes 1st reading, NDP fear it reopens abortion debate

Williams has said he wants the bill to pass so that “health-care providers… never have to choose between their most deeply held beliefs and their job.”

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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.”

READ MORE: Pro-life rally attracts hundreds of people to Alberta legislature grounds

Last week, the MLA said the bill is meant to protect freedom of conscience and is not intended to limit health-care services. However, some critics have raised concerns that it could restrict access to health-care services for sexual minorities and women seeking abortions or contraceptives.

On Wednesday, Williams reiterated his position.

“This bill will not limit patients’ access to these services,” he said. “Around the province, health-care professionals have thoughtfully and collaboratively dealt with these issues in order to ensure patients have access to health services while protecting the conscience rights of providers.

“Also, Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, whose job it is to protect the public and ensure patient access, said that the bill is ‘broadly consistent with this [status quo] standard and meets both the needs of physicians and Albertans,'” he said, quoting a quote from a spokesperson for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta in a story published in the Globe and Mail on Monday.

In her letter, Molnar acknowledges Bill 207 is not “government-sponsored” legislation but indicates that she believes Shandro needs to hear concerns being raised by AMA members.

“There are already protections in place for health-care providers,” the letter says. “Respecting physicians, the process currently in place under standards of the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta, is appropriate and effective.

“From this perspective at least, Bill 207 is redundant and potentially confusing.”

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A file photo of Christine Molnar, president of the Alberta Medical Association.
A file photo of Christine Molnar, president of the Alberta Medical Association. CREDIT: https://www.albertadoctors.org/

Molnar wrote that what she considers to be “the more serious issue” the legislation poses, is that it “may have unintended consequences in limiting patient access to services.”

“For physicians, the current state protects conscience rights, while also ensuring that patients are given information or referral to allow them to pursue access to the desired service,” the letter reads. “This arrangement has served Albertans well and should be maintained.”

READ MORE: Alberta Election Fact Check: NDP claims Kenney’s trying to restrict access to abortion

Last week, when asked for a response to critics suggesting that Bill 207 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.”

You can read Molnar’s letter in its entirety below:

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