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Alberta LGBTQ2 community fearful over conscience rights bill

WATCH: 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.

Alberta‘s LGBTQ2 community is bracing for the worst as a private member’s bill, that would allow doctors to refuse patients based on personal conscientious objections, passes first reading.

“It’s a little bit scary for all of us in Alberta right now. We really don’t know what’s going on and we don’t know where this is going to lead,” said Holly Tom, president of the Trans Equality Society of Alberta.

“What we’re seeing with these types of legislation is … an anti-LGBTQ sentiment, whether they’re going to say it outright or not.”

Bill 207, introduced in the legislature by Peace River United Conservative Party MLA Dan Williams, is aimed at reasserting the Charter-protected freedom of conscience and religion for health providers. If passed, health care providers would be allowed to refuse service to any individual based on conscience, including religious beliefs, moral and ethical values and cultural traditions.

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

A number of health providers fall under the umbrella of the bill, including doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, pharmacists, and Emergency Medical Services, which has some worried that the bill would severely restrict access to health care services for sexual minorities and women seeking abortions.

But Tom said the bill could be seen as an infringement on everybody’s rights, not just marginalized communities.

“We need to make sure that everyone is aware that their rights may be violated by somebody’s conscientious objection,” Tom said.

“Something as simple as a 14-year-old going to the doctor and asking for birth control could be simply denied because that doctor does not believe in birth control.”

UCP axes grant run by Alberta Human Rights Commission
UCP axes grant run by Alberta Human Rights Commission

Williams disagrees, saying Bill 207 would seek to enshrine health care providers’ rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in provincial law.

“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,” Williams said in a statement.

“Health-care providers should never have to choose between their most deeply held beliefs and their job.”

On Thursday, Christine Molnar, head of the organization that represents Alberta’s physicians, reached out to the province’s health minister to “state some concerns” about the conscience rights bill, which passed its first reading in the legislature last week in a vote of 36 to 15.

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

In her letter, she called the bill “unnecessary,” “redundant,” and “confusing.”

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

Dying With Dignity Canada on Alberta Bill 2017
Dying With Dignity Canada on Alberta Bill 2017

Last week, the MLA said the bill is meant to protect freedom of conscience and is not intended to limit health care services.

Although Williams insisted wait times would not be affected, there is no mention in the bill that would require a physician to give any kind of referral for services should they refuse a patient, which Tom said could increase already lengthy wait times.

“They can simply say no and walk away, leaving people completely stranded,” she said.

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The current College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta standards of practice says when conscience and religion prevent a regulated member from providing or offering access to information about a legally available medical or surgical treatment or service, they must ensure the patient is offered an effective, timely referral.

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Janis Irwin, New Democrat MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, called the bill “abominable” and expressed concern for citizens who may experience trouble accessing reproductive health services in rural and remote parts of Alberta, where some communities only have one doctor and one pharmacist.

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“We know access to things like gender reassignment surgery can save these lives. We’ve already got a lot of folks in our community who are struggling with the medical system,” said Irwin, who is currently the only openly LGBTQ2 member of the Legislative Assembly in Alberta.

“This is not this is not the province I know and love.”

Irwin said she would do everything in her power to fight Jason Kenney’s “uterus control party.”

Alberta’s premier said Friday that members of his caucus would be free to vote on the bill as they wish.

While he hasn’t read the bill, Kenney said he hopes everyone respects as a matter of principle the freedom of conscience as outlined in the Charter.

–With files from The Canadian Press