Christian doctors in Canada are facing a serious challenge to their religious freedom — a challenge which could soon threaten doctors here in the US as well.
The Christian Medical and Dental Society (CMDS) of Canada has gone to court this week against the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario disputing the requirement that doctors who conscientiously object to offering “medical assistance in dying” are still forced to give an “effective referral” to the patient. The patient can then take that referral to a doctor who is willing to participate in assisted suicide. Doctors who refuse to provide the referral risk being fined and even losing their licenses.
The group of more than 4,700 Christian doctors say that their religious freedom is curtailed by this mandate because, by giving the referral, they are endorsing an act which violates their religious belief in the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
Today, CMDS lawyer, Albertos Polizogopoulos made his opening arguments before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice:
I’m a simple guy and I’m going to keep it simple. [The arguments in this case] are about whether the government can compel people to do things that they think are wrong . . . The evidence is clear that the applicants believe the policy compels them to do something they believe is a sin, is wrong . . . The expectation and the obligation of the physician is to facilitate access, and that’s the problem . . . If, during the break, someone comes up to me and says, “I’m looking to buy cocaine,” and I sell them cocaine, I’ve broken the law. We recognize that. But if I say, “Actually, I don’t sell cocaine but go see Diana,” and she sells him cocaine, I’ve facilitated that. And that’s a crime.
Tracey Sobers, a spokeswoman for the College, defends the requirement arguing that because “an effective referral does not foreshadow or guarantee an outcome,” the Christian doctors are not really being forced to violate their consciences.
Likewise, the College’s fact sheet on effective referrals claims that they do not symbolize support from the objecting physician:
An effective referral does not guarantee a patient will receive a treatment, or signal that the objecting physician endorses or supports the treatment. It ensures access to care and demonstrates respect for patient autonomy.
Dr. Ewan Goligher, a conscientious objector who works in the intensive care unit at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, feels otherwise. He believes, “If I knowingly refer my patient to anyone who does things that are unethical, I need to be held to account.”
Jeff Yurek, a legislator who proposed a bill that, had it passed, would have protected the conscience rights of doctors, agrees with Dr. Goligher:
Whether or not the college believes it [the referral] is participating or not, the doctor’s billing number, which we heard through committee, sticks with that patient through that whole process. Even in the technical workings of OHIP [Ontario Health Insurance Plan], the doctor is part of the process.
National Post contributor Derek Smith disagrees, however. Implying that a doctor who will not help his patient commit suicide is somehow harming that patient, he wrote, “Religious freedom sometimes has to yield to laws that prevent religious people from harming others.”
Smith thinks the issue just comes down to the choice of words:
Because Ontario’s referral is essentially a transfer, the college should follow Nova Scotia and call it an effective transfer. Words matter. The term ‘medical assistance in dying’ is used out of respect for patients. The word ‘transfer’ should be used out of respect for objecting doctors.
Referral or transfer, whatever you call it, a doctor would still be required to entrust his patient to the care of a doctor who he knows will help kill the patient.
Doctors in America should take note of what is happening to their northern neighbors. When so-called “death with dignity” bills are being proposed in state legislatures, Christian doctors must be vocal first and foremost in opposing such bills, but secondly, in ensuring that, if assisted suicide is legalized, exceptions are put in place so that conscientious objectors are not forced to participate in any way in killing other human beings.