Is the Ontario College of Physicians trying to clamp down on doctors’ freedom of conscience?

June 12, 2014

By Lea Z. Singh |

If you believe in protecting the freedom of conscience of our doctors, here’s your chance to do something about it. Earlier this month, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) sent out a little notice that was easy to miss, saying that they are now reviewing their policy on this topic, and inviting not just physicians but also the public and interested organizations to provide input on how their policy can be “improved.”

Here’s what concerns me. Earlier this spring, three Ottawa doctors were under fire in the media for refusing to prescribe artificial birth control. The public response was in large part negative, with comments accusing these doctors of oppressing women and imposing their own religious values upon their patients. Shockingly to me, many people even expressed the view that doctors who do not prescribe birth control or refer for abortion should not be permitted to practice medicine.

That was the public, but what about the experts? Turns out that doctors and ethicists are more divided than ever on this question, and some important players are leaning towards tighter restrictions on physicians’ freedom of conscience. This is evident in a current major project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research which deals with precisely this issue. Entitled Let Conscience Be Their Guide? Conscientious Refusals in Reproductive Health Care, the project asks whether it is permissible for doctors to refuse providing “health care services such as abortions.” The project’s website states that the answer will come “in part from a feminist perspective.” I already sense what that will mean for the right of conscientious refusal.

photo: By Nephron (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

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