Several hundred people gathered at the Alberta legislature Saturday, protesting the controversial Bill 207, the so-called “conscience rights” bill.
“It’s a risky and slippery slope when you talk about providing people a right to discriminate,” said Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare.
The bill, which has now passed first reading, was introduced in the legislature by Peace River United Conservative Party MLA Dan Williams, and 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.
Many have concerns about the bill, including what it could do to reproductive services, like access to abortion and birth control pills, or that it could create new barriers for LGBTQ2 people accessing healthcare.
“We want to send them a clear message that this is a discriminatory bill, and it is an unnecessary bill, and it will cause a great deal of harm to a lot of Albertans,” Azocar said.
Azocar also added that she believes the current system already protects conscientious rights. The current provincial standards say that if a provider, like a doctor or pharmacist, is “prevented” by their religious or conscience beliefs from providing access to information or services, they must ensure the patient is offered an effective, timely referral.
The new bill doesn’t have any specifications about referrals.
“[Providers can say], I don’t agree with providing those services to whatever selective group of people, and I don’t have to,” Azocar said.
Some of Saturday’s demonstrators were also concerned about dying with dignity and assisted-suicide access.
“If Bill 207 passes, this encourages patient abandonment, this encourages bad behavior,” said Bradley Peter, the Edmonton chapter co-chair of Dying With Dignity Canada.
Peter said he is also concerned that Bill 207 would give institutions the right to refuse.
Last year, Covenant Health came under fire and put forward new guidelines, after a patient was forced to hold a medically-assisted-dying-assessment on a busy sidewalk outside of the hospital.
Since Covenant Health is a faith-based health organization, it does not offer medically-assisted dying services at its hospitals, but is legally bound to help arrange for patients to access them elsewhere.
But there are concerns Bill 207 could change that.
“We currently have practices in Covenant Health where patients are forced out of facilities to die, because Covenant Health has decided they don’t support assisted dying,” Peter said.
“This is the type of behavior that Bill 207 is encouraging.”
Williams said in a statement that the bill “in no way limits access to health care services in the province”.
“Health-care providers should never have to choose between their most deeply held beliefs and their job,” the MLA’s statement read.
Premier Jason Kenney said on Friday that members would be free to vote on the bill as they wish, but said that he himself has not read it.
2 UCP MLAS oppose bill
Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer tweeted Saturday that he will vote against the bill unless there are material changes.
His tweet echoed Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Pete Guthrie’s who was quoted as saying the bill is not necessary.
The bill is set to go before a standing committee on Monday.