Doctors make charter challenge on right to refuse care on religious grounds

Christian medical professionals are challenging Ontario's College of Physicians and Surgeons in court over a policy that requires doctors to provide or at least refer medical services, even when they clash with personal values.

In a statement of claim filed in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice, two groups — the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians' Societies — and five individual doctors say the college's policy violates their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At issue is the Ontario medical regulator's vote earlier this month to update its professional and human rights policy.

The new Ontario policy requires doctors unwilling to provide certain care, such as prescriptions for contraception, to refer patients in good faith to a "non-objecting, available, and accessible" physician. The policy also says in medical emergencies, the doctors would be required to perform procedures themselves.

Doctors who violate the policy could face disciplinary action, the college policy states.

Charter violation, groups allege

The two physician groups say in their statement of claim that the policy is a violation of a physician's right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

"The obligation to provide an 'effective referral' for a procedure or pharmaceuticals to which the physician objects on moral or religious grounds is, for some physicians, unconscionable," the applicants say in the statement of claim.

The doctors also say refusing to provide certain procedures or pharmaceuticals does not violate the charter rights of patients, does not violate the Human Rights Code and does not amount to discrimination.

None of the allegations in the statement of claim have been tested in court.

The applicants are calling for an interim and permanent injunction blocking the enforcement of the updated policy and want the college to recognize their charter rights.

The college's review of its policy began last year in the wake of complaints involving an Ottawa walk-in clinic in February 2014 that refused to provide birth control to a woman on religious grounds.

A spokesperson at the college, however, says the policy review is part of a regular review process. Its last policy dates back to 2008.

College to 'vigorously defend' policy

In a statement released Tuesday, the college said it would "vigorously defend the recently approved policy."

"The policy requires that physicians act in a manner that respects patient dignity, ensures access to care, and protects patient safety when they choose not to provide health care for reasons of their religion or conscience. The policy does not require physicians to perform procedures or provide treatments to which they object on religious basis, except during a medical emergency," the college said in a statement.

"We believe the policy strikes the appropriate balance between physicians' charter rights, their professional and ethical obligations and the expectations of the public."

The college also noted that it made the change only after a review process which included two public consultations.