Committee kills controversial ‘conscience rights’ bill

Susan Thompson
For the Lakeside Leader

The controversial ‘conscience rights’ bill put forward by rookie Peace River MLA Dan Williams has been stopped in committee.

After the bill passed first reading with support from a majority of the United Conservative Party caucus, it went to a Standing Committee on Private Bills. After a passionate debate over the bill, the committee decided it needed further consultation from stakeholders.

The committee heard feedback from six individuals and organizations on Nov. 21. The stakeholders consulted included four doctors, the Trans Equality Society of Alberta, and Dying With Dignity Canada.

Bill 207, the Conscience Rights Protection Act, would have allowed doctors the right to refuse services based on their religious or ‘conscientious’ beliefs. While doctors and other health care providers already have that right, currently they are required to give patients a referral. The bill would have removed the referral requirement, while protecting doctors who exercised their conscience rights from being subject to any complaints or liability.

The bill made news across the country, with critics saying it would limit Albertans’ access to medical services such as birth control, abortion and assisted death, especially in rural communities where there may not be many health care providers.

Although Williams proposed amendments to the bill, which were approved by the College of Physicians and Surgeons as being more in line with their standard of care, after hearing from stakeholders the committee voted 8 – 2 for the bill not to proceed to the legislature for a vote. Of the eight votes that effectively stalled the bill, four UCP MLAs voted against it.

The UCP MLAs say they have received thousands of emails sbout the bill. One of them, Jeremy Nixon, said he is a firm supporter of conscience rights, but he also supports non-discriminatory access to health care.

Minister of Justice Doug Schweitzer had said his constituents in Calgary-Elbow did not support the bill as written, and Health Minister Tyler Shandro had said he could not support the bill if it limited access to health care for some Albertans.

Opposition NDP MLA Janis Irwin took to Twitter to celebrate the decision.

“This is a victory,” she said, “but we must remember there’s so much work ahead in the fight for a strong public health care system for all.”

According to a CBC news report, the Peace River MLA said the bill would ensure health-care professionals don’t have to choose between their convictions and their jobs.

“That’s what Albertans tell me they want,” Williams said. “That’s what I believe my constituents want. That’s what I believe this bill does and that’s why I’m going to continue to advocate for it.”

Peace River MLA
Dan Williams

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