Christian doctors and the end of tolerance

August 01, 2014

For decades, tolerance was the golden rule of left-wing ideology. The public school system indoctrinated children about the absolute importance of being non-judgmental, and conservatives were told to love rather than moralise. We were all supposed to be headed towards some nirvana of values-free caring and sharing.

But it’s not turning out that way. Now that tolerance has done its work of confusing the populace and muddling popular common sense about right and wrong, the tune has suddenly changed. The left isn’t singing John Lennon’s Imagine anymore, they have moved on to a new song that could be called “My Way or the Highway.”

It’s time to wake up. The magic flute of tolerance which enraptured our society has been leading us along a pretty, winding path that ends in a new dictatorship.

Driving freedom out of medicine

A case in point is this week’s article by Martin Regg Cohn in The Toronto Star. Cohn wants doctors to leave their “private moral framework” out of the practice of medicine, and he urges the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to enact guidelines that would end the religious freedom of all doctors.

Cohn is undisturbed by the thought that many religious doctors might leave the practice of medicine if they are no longer able to conscientiously object to treatments like birth control pills, which may violate their religious and ethical values. Good riddance, says Cohn:
If a doctor is so antediluvian as to be anti-contraception, he’d best transition from medical to pastoral work. Playing God isn’t in the job description of physicians.
So much for tolerance towards those who disagree with the liberal ‘sexual rights’ agenda. Cohn is now telling faithful Catholics that they need not apply to medical schools. And, in a true dictatorial spirit, Cohn would like the Ontario government to force this policy if the College refuses to change its guidelines:
If the college fails to reassert itself as a self-governing authority, let the provincial government step in to defend patient rights under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Queen’s Park could do that by de-delegating the college’s authority and re-regulating medicine on our behalf.
This is a dangerously totalitarian way of thinking. What do the words “freedom of conscience and religion” mean to people like Cohn?

To be free means to live out our faith

In the past, our society understood freedom of conscience and religion to refer to every person’s right to live according to their own moral and religious precepts. We believed these rights to be foundational for our democratic society and enshrined them in our Charter as fundamental freedoms. Our Supreme Court has explained them this way:
The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.
These words by our highest Court closely echo Section 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that the “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” includes the freedom “to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Such passages recognize that living out our core values in our daily lives, which include our workplace, is the essence of true freedom. But that is merely a slight inconvenience for the new liberal ideology, which is busy moving the debate into the realm of “patient rights”.

Apparently, Ontario patients now can’t tolerate even a single “no” to any request for birth control, even if they can easily get their prescriptions of referrals elsewhere. As such, Cohn would take away Charter protection from doctors and make them into mere machines, just to save patients from the inconvenience and annoyance of going to the next clinic.

Come on Cohn, is minor inconvenience really too high a price to pay for the fundamental freedom of our doctors, or any citizens?

Is Cohn in the majority?

Apparently, many citizens today would answer that yes, the “patient is always right” approach is more important than religious freedom. At least, this is the impression one would get from reading the secular media.

The ratio of articles that have been published pro and against doctors’ religious freedom is telling. Over the last couple of months, about 20 articles have attacked the freedom of conscience of doctors, in various major secular Canadian newspapers and some mainstream online sites (not counting LifeSite News and other pro-life or Catholic media). In contrast, less than 5 articles defending the freedom of conscience have made it into the same forums.

On the other hand, the online poll on the College website is far more encouraging. Out of 22,597 votes, 67% said “yes” to the question “Do you think a physician should be allowed to refuse to provide a patient with a treatment or procedure because it conflicts with the physician’s religious or moral beliefs?” (When I last wrote about this poll, the results had been exactly opposite, so this is an excellent development).

Common misconceptions

Still, many people are not quite sure where they stand on this issue. While they might support religious freedom in theory, they are also worried about doctors putting patients at risk because of fringe religious ideas. Where should we draw the line?

The answer is, we already have a very good line, and it is working just fine. For instance, Muslim doctors already can’t opt out of treating women. The present College guidelines prohibit doctors from refusing to treat someone “on the basis of the individual’s or patient’s race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status and/or disability.”

What about a doctor who refuses to treat someone in a life-threatening emergency because he doesn’t want to give blood transfusions? Answer: this is already not allowed. Doctors have a duty to treat patients in life-threatening emergencies, and any patient who needs a blood transfusion can rest assured that he or she will get it.

The only gray area in the current policy is that doctors in remote rural locations have the same freedom of conscience as city doctors. Clearly, if rural doctors refuse to prescribe birth control pills, this could be a major hardship for women who would need to travel to other doctors.

The media keeps bringing up this scenario as support for ending conscience rights, but the fact is, this situation has never arisen in Ontario and it remains speculative. There are very few doctors in this province who refuse on religious grounds to prescribe birth control pills and related treatments, and they already shy away from jobs in the middle of the woods. Without even a single real case to speak of, it would be premature and highly disproportionate to eliminate the religious freedom of all doctors on account of this unconfirmed fear.

Keep the course

The College will wrap up its public consultation on Tuesday, August 5. Until then, we still have a chance to let them know that they would do best to keep the course.

Patients don’t need a draconian policy that ends the religious freedom of Ontario doctors, and such a policy would only be counter-productive. Rather than improving our health care system, it would undermine the foundations of trust that are so important in medicine, and drive principled doctors out of the profession.

As it turns out, the best protection for all patients, as the last stand against bad medicine and unethical laws and regulations, is the freedom of conscience of our doctors.

Click here to participate in the public consultation and to vote in the CPSO's online poll.

Photo: a.drian via photopin cc

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