Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude


Part1: The making of a story

Sean Murphy*

What happened
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On the morning of 29 January, 2014, a 25 year old married woman went to Care-Medics Medical Centres in Ottawa, a walk-in clinic that she claims she had frequented for about two years. She wanted a prescription for birth control pills. After giving her health number to the receptionist, she sat down and waited until she was called. When she told the receptionist why she was there, she was advised that it was not possible to have the prescription filled. The young woman was surprised and asked why. The receptionist pointed to "a stack of letters" on the desk. The woman picked one up and began to read it.

Dear Patient:
Please be advised that because of reasons of my own medical judgment as well as professional ethical concerns and religious values, I only provide one form of birth control, Natural Family Planning. In addition, I do not refer for vasectomies, abortions, nor prescribe the morning after pill or any other artificial contraception. If you are interested in the latter, please be aware that you may approach your own family doctor or request to be seen by another physician. . .1

Although she had attended the clinic for two years, this was the first time that this had happened, and she was understandably surprised. The receptionist told her that she could return the next day and see a different physician, but the woman explained that she could not do so because she was working. The receptionist advised her that she would have to go elsewhere if she wanted the prescription filled, as the physician was the only one available that day.

It almost felt like I was doing something wrong. I felt truly embarrassed having to leave in front of a group of people because of something that someone thinks is shameful and not right.

I had to go out of my way and find another clinic. Luckily for me, there was one not too far away. I still couldn't even believe what happened. I even mentioned it to the receptionist at the other clinic, and she was just as shocked as I was.2

The "other clinic" was the Sunrise Medical Centre in the Loblaws Store across the street on Merivale Road - a two minute drive. There was a pharmacy in the store, so presumably she had the prescription filled there.3 In brief, a young woman was refused a birth control prescription at one clinic, but obtained the prescription and pills at another clinic and pharmacy two minutes away.

A happy ending?

That she had no difficulty obtaining her pills is not surprising, since, in the words of the Medical Officer of Health and the President of the Academy of Medicine of Ottawa, birth control services are "widely available" in the city. They encouraged anyone wanting the services to visit Ottawa Public Health's Sexual Health Centre, family doctor "or the drop-in services available at more than 20 satellite locations . . . throughout the city." In fact, they urged people to "emphasize and celebrate" the wide availability of birth control services, the morning after pill, referrals for abortion, and vasectomies.4

This could have been the end of the story. It was in the case of another patient, who said that, two years earlier, she had crossed the same street to the same clinic for her birth control prescription.5 It could even have been a happy ending. The physician in question was not forced to do something contrary to his medical judgment . . . professional ethical concerns and religious values." The young woman obtained the birth control pills she wanted. The Medical Officer of Health was presented with an opportunity to advertise his products and services. In his view, people in Ottawa even had reason to celebrate.

The gathering storm

Within a few days it became apparent that some people did not want the story to end there, did not want the story to end happily, and were in no mood to celebrate. In consequence, the story is continuing - in a sense. What actually happened has faded into the background, overwritten by pages of self-righteous indignation and outrage expressed in the expletives, exclamation marks, and acronyms of social media, and the more solemn judgments passed by various commentators consulted by mainstream media.

The story is no longer about a young woman who had to drive around the block to another clinic for her birth control pills. It is, rather, a story about a growing Canadian phenomenon: an obsessive fear and seething contempt for people who express and actually live by moral, ethical or religious beliefs. Not all of them, mind you: only those deemed heretical by secularist authorities and a secularist clergy that includes prominent academics, professionals, regulatory bureaucrats and pundits.

The phenomenon is exemplified by the witch-hunt whipped up in Montreal after two daycare workers were seen wearing niqabs (gasp) in a public place (double gasp, with stress on public) on an outing with the children in their care (triple gasp: post to Facebook, call the government).6 It is exemplified by Quebec's proposed Charter of Secularism,7 which the government of Quebec touts as the "solution" to "problems" like women who draw gasps because of what they are wearing rather than what they are not wearing. And it is exemplified by the new story in Ottawa that has supplanted the original, and that is proving to be much more interesting.

The crusade

It started innocently enough. The young woman was so taken aback by having been refused the prescription that, soon afterward, she posted a photo of the physician's letter on her Facebook page, with a note about it. In an account posted a few days later, she said that she did so "just to get a general idea to see if this is even legal."8

Got turned away at my normal clinic becuase the doctor has moral issues with giving perscriptions for birth control. . .can doctors in a public clinics actually do this? [sic]9

The first response from a 'friend' (12:44 pm) was "That's really bizarre!"10

Within minutes, another 'friend' advised her to "post that ____ on Reddit. Unacceptable!"11

Other similar comments followed. Then:

Don't know how Canada is but isn't there a separation of church and state? Since you have socialized health care he gets payed by the state do his religion shouldn't be able to have anything to do with it. [sic]12

The young woman responded immediately, "Yes! Exactly! I believe your right." [sic]13

A group that describes itself as "pro-choice" (though not, apparently, in favour of choices it dislikes)14 posted a copy of the physician's letter on its Facebook page that afternoon:

This was sent to us anonymously by a woman in Ottawa.
So, yes - this is real.
Yes - this is a real doctor.
No - You are not in a time warp.
(Feel free to circulate widely as a reminder to folks that we must remain forever vigilant).15

The responses were not long in coming. Outraged Facebookers called the physician a "jerk,"16 a "complete anachronism,"17 "disgusting,"18 incompetent,19 "unethical and unprofessional,"20 a "worthless piece of ____,"21 a "crummy doctor,"22 "an idiot,"23 and described him as - judgemental.24

"Goofballs like this," wrote one, "are the best walking arguments for the birth control they don't believe in."25

"He should move to the states, or maybe Dubai, where he will be among his own kind."26

The call to be "forever vigilant" appealed, naturally enough, to the vigilante set.

I think that women should start going in looking for prescriptions for The Pill. You know, just a top up till their family doctor can see them again.27

We see hear (with appropriate winds and nods - "you know" -) a fairly obvious suggestion that women should go to the clinic and make gratuitous requests for birth control pills, knowing they will be refused, for the sole purpose of fabricating complaints against the physician to the College of Physicians and Surgeons and Ontario Human Rights Commission.

For, in the view of the fuming Facebookers, "The only sane solution is to revoke his licence unless he agrees to perform the duties for which he is being paid,"28 because he had chosen "the wrong damned profession,"29 he had "no business practicing [sic] family medicine"30 and "does not deserve to practice in Canada. PERIOD."31 A number urged that formal complaints be lodged against him, suggesting he was guilty of professional misconduct and even unlawful discrimination.32

"If this guy is still employed, and complaints aren't filed against him," wrote one, "then mission failed."33

The 'pro-choice' group assured their correspondent that they had received "lots of word" that people were calling the physician's clinic, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.34

The young woman was delighted with the results and congratulated the 'pro-choice' group on its handiwork.

Thanks for posting my letter and getting the word out! It means alot and I truely hope this gets spread nation wide! Keep fighting the good fight! [sic]35

The 'other'

A member of the Ottawa Citizen editorial board picked up on the Facebook feeding frenzy. By late afternoon the day after the young woman went to the clinic, news that three physicians in Ottawa would not fill birth control prescriptions was on the front page.36

The appearance of the column increased the young woman's enthusiasm for what seems to have become her cause:

This is so wacky!! But im so amazed that it was printed in the citizen!! Keep posting people and get the word out!! Keep your morals at home!37

Of course, the young woman and her supporters - now including commentators on the Citizen website and elsewhere - were not keeping their morals at home. The warning, "Keep your morals at home!" was not meant for adherents of the gospel according to received opinion, but for people like the three physicians, who question that gospel: the heretics.

"THREE of them at the same clinic?" gasped one of the Facebookers.

It is instructive, here, to change the emphasis: "Three of THEM at the same clinic?"38

Them. THREE of THEM. That is, not one of US, but one of those OTHERS. From such a perspective, it isn't surprising that one of the Facebookers suggested that the physician should move elsewhere, "maybe Dubai," where he could "be among his own kind." Nor is it surprising that the case should be cited as "a perfect example" demonstrating the need for laws like the Quebec Charter of Secularism.39

The new story

This is the new story, and it is far more interesting than the story about the young woman who had to drive around the block to get her birth control pills. In fact, the original story - what actually happened - was not told on the 'pro-choice' Facebook page, nor in the Ottawa Citizen article. It was not what actually happened that sparked the outpouring of self-righteous and often venomous denunciation.

What triggered the preaching of the crusade was news that three Ottawa physicians had told their patients that they would not recommend, facilitate or do what they believed to be immoral, unethical, or harmful. Consulted by the Ottawa Citizen columnist, officials from the Canadian Medical Association and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario seemed unsure about whether or not there is room for that kind of integrity in the medical profession.40 A few days later, a reporter with the Medical Post expressed doubt that it was even legal.41

We leave the officials pondering the problem presented by public displays of physician integrity, and return to the physician in question: that "disgusting", "incompetent unethical and unprofessional" "worthless piece of ____" who had so provoked the Facebookers by implicitly challenging some of their cherished dogmas. The morning after the Ottawa Citizen article appeared, one of his patients offered the following comment on the 'pro-choice' group Facebook page:

This is my family doctor and I know he doesn't prescribe birth control pills it is the first thing he told me when I went for my first appointment. And it is true he said it was because of his religion I told him I could not care less because I have a hysterectomy and that I hope it doesn't bother him that I am an Atheist, it did not bother him at all. Here is the thing, I have been going to doctors for 25 years with the same problem and this Doctor figured out my problem in the first appointment with him, he is an excellent doctor. But I will agree with everyone that when he first told me about not prescribing birth control pills I thought that was very weird. But I do owe this Doctor my life.42

We find in this comment by a grateful patient something that will inform the next stage of this discussion. It is her reflection on her own response when the physician explained that he did not prescribe contraceptives: "I thought that was very weird."


1.  Letter, "Dear Patient."

2.  Desjardins K.. (Also known as "K___ A___") IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Asked for Birth Control and Got a Form Letter Saying "No." 4 February, 2014 (Accessed 2014-02-08)

3.   On her Facebook page, K___ A___ stated that she went to "loblaws beside fit4less." K___ A___, 29 January, 2014. 12:52 pm. (Accessed 2014-02-08) The Care Medics clinic in this case is at 1375 Baseline Rd. in Ottawa. There is a Loblaws Store at 1460 Merivale Rd. next to a Fit 4Less at the same address. The Sunrise Medical Centre is located inside the Loblaws Store, as is a pharmacy. Google Maps indicates that the distance from Care Medics clinic to the Loblaws Store on Merivale Rd. is 1.1km, a two minute drive or seven minute walk. See Appendix "A".

4.  Levy I. (Medical Officer of Health, Ottawa) and Abdullah A. (President, Academy of Medicine, Ottawa), Letter to the Ottawa Citizen, 1 February, 2014.

5.  S____ C____. 30 January, 2014: 7:03 am | 7:05 am. Radical Handmaids (Accessed 2014-02-08)

6.  Selley C. "Quebec's latest niqab panic." National Post, 23 November, 2013 (Accessed 2014-02-08)

7.  Bill n°60 : Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests
(Accessed 2014-02-11)

8.  Desjardins K.. IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Asked for Birth Control and Got a Form Letter Saying "No." 4 February, 2014 (Accessed 2014-02-08)

9.  K___ A___, 29 January, 2014 (Accessed 2014-02-08)

10.  S____ M___. 29 January, 2014, 12:44 pm (Accessed 2014-02-08)

11.  B_____ S_____. 29 January, 2014, 12:51 pm Expletive deleted. (Accessed 2014-02-08)

12.  S_____ B_____. 29 January, 2014, 2:35 pm (Accessed 2014-02-08)

13K___ A___, 29 January, 2014, 2:36 pm (Accessed 2014-02-08)

14Radical Handmaids: About. "The Radical Handmaids are pro-choice activists who love CanLit and really outrageous hats." (Accessed 2014-02-08)

15Radical Handmaids Facebook Page, 29 January, 2014 (Accessed 2014-02-10)

16J___ R____, 29 January, 2014, 5:50 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

17D___ D___ B___, 29 January, 2014, 5:58 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

18A___ R___, 29 January, 2014, 6:29 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

19M___ A___, 29 January, 2014, 7:19 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

20M___ A___, 29 January, 2014, 8:54 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

21M___ C___, 29 January, 2014, 8:57 pm (Expletive deleted) (Accessed 2014-02-10)

22S___ W___, 29 January, 2014, 9:36 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

23L___ J___ M___, 30 January, 2014, 9:24 am (Accessed 2014-02-10)

24T___ D___, 30 January, 2014, 4:25 am; C___ B___, 30 January, 2014, 5:07 am (Accessed 2014-02-10)

25J___ L___, 29 January, 2014, 10:10 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

26T___ M___, 29 January, 2014, 6:56 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

27C__ F___, 30 January, 2014, 6:53 am (Accessed 2014-02-10)

28J___ O___, 30 January, 2014, 1:38 pm; R___ L___ 29 January, 2014, 7:32 pm; K___ N___ H___, 30 January, 2014, 11:48 am ; L___ C___ 31 January, 2014, 7:52 am (Accessed 2014-02-10)

29K___ B___, 29 January, 2014, 7:56 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

30A___ M___ 29 January, 2014, 7:41 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

31R___ V___, 29 January, 2014, 7:52 pm (Accessed 2014-02-10)

32D___ M___, 30 January, 2014, 5:41 am; N___ P___, 30 January, 2014, 8:12 am; M___ C___, 30 January, 2014, 3:04 pm; A___ O___, 31 January, 2014, 5:26. (Accessed 2014-02-10)

33N___ P___ 30 January, 2014, 8:40 am (Accessed 2014-02-10)

34Radical Handmaids, 30 January, 2014, 8:45 am (Accessed 2014-02-10)

35K___ A___ Facebook Comment 30 January, 2014 11:24 am. (Accessed 2014-02-08)

36.  Payne E. "Some Ottawa doctors refuse to prescribe birth control pills." Ottawa Citizen, 30 January, 2014 (Accessed 2014-02-08)

37K___ A___ Facebook Comment 31 January, 2014. (Accessed 2014-02-08)

38C___ F___, 30 January, 2014, 5:35 pm. (Accessed 2014-02-08)

39.  Gagnon S. "Contrary to democracy." Letter to the editor, Ottawa Citizen, 1 February, 2014.

40.  Payne E. "Some Ottawa doctors refuse to prescribe birth control pills." Ottawa Citizen, 30 January, 2014 (Accessed 2014-02-08)

41.   Glauser W. "Ottawa clinic doctors’ refusal to offer contraception shameful,
says embarrassed patient." Medical Post, 5 February, 2014

42M___ C___, 31 January, 2014, 7:16 am (Accessed 2014-02-08)