Draft policy no longer demands referral by objecting physicians
Project – Prohibiting communication with patients by objecting physicians “unsound”; disclaimer re: euthanasia and assisted suicide “misleading and ill advised”
Protection of Conscience Project
A committee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan has revised a controversial draft policy after a public consultation yielded “a very significant return” of over 4,400 responses, almost all of which opposed it. The consultation appears to have produced no evidence that anyone in Saskatchewan has ever been unable to access medical services because a physician has declined to provide or refer for a procedure for reasons of conscience, or that the health of anyone in Saskatchewan has ever been adversely affected by conscientious objection by a physician.
The committee concluded that objecting physicians “should not be obligated to provide a referral to a physician who will ultimately potentially provide the service.” The requirement was deleted from the revised draft.
In a submission to the College, the Protection of Conscience describes the deletion as as “entirely satisfactory” and “a tacit admission that such a policy would be an unacceptable assault on freedom of conscience – not a compromise.”
However, the revised draft effectively prohibits objecting physicians from communicating with patients about morally contested procedures, requiring them to refer patients to a non-objecting colleague. The assumption underlying the recommendation is that a physician who has a moral viewpoint is incapable of properly communicating with a patient because of ‘bias’.
In its submission, the Project points out that all physicians have moral viewpoints. If the proposed policy is to be applied fairly and consistently, the ‘bias’ of physicians who do not object to a procedure should be nullified in the same way.
This proposal is unsound. If applied as now written, it would simply exchange one kind of alleged ‘bias’ for another. If applied fairly and consistently to all physicians, it would inconvenience patients, delay treatments, provide no better outcomes, double the costs of providing health care and antagonize physicians on all sides of any issue.
Instead, the Project recommends that all physicians should be required to provide patients with sufficient information to satisfy the requirements of informed medical decision making, and
- advise patients at the earliest reasonable opportunity of services or procedures they decline to recommend or provide for reasons of conscience, and
- advise affected patients that they may seek the services elsewhere, and ensure that they have sufficient information to approach other physicians, heath care workers or community organizations
After the public consultation, the drafting committee added a disclaimer to the revised draft stating that the policy will not apply to physician administered euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. Among the ostensible reasons offered for this are that the issue is “in a state of development,” ethical implications have not been fully explored, legislation is lacking and there is “considerable uncertainty” about it.
The Project submission describes this as “misleading and ill-advised.” It reminds the College that, when the associate registrar proposed the coercive policy in July, 2014, it was well known that the Supreme Court of Canada might well legalize physician assisted suicide, and he specifically referred to that. After the Supreme Court of Canada issued its judgement in Carter, the associate registrar defended the proposition that physicians should be disciplined or fired if they refused to at least refer patients for euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. He did not then urge caution because the ethical implications of the ruling were unclear or there was considerable uncertainty about it.
“It is unrealistic to believe that Conscientious Refusal as revised will not be applied to physician administered euthanasia and physician assisted suicide,” states the Project submission, “either directly, after a certain length of time, or indirectly, as a paradigm for further policy development.”
It recommends that, if the College is determined to enact a policy on conscientious refusal, it should ensure that the policy adopted is sufficiently flexible to accommodate physicians with respect to all procedures or services. Otherwise, Council should reject Conscientious Refusal as revised and postpone policy development until after the Carter decision comes into force in 2016.
The revised policy, Conscientious Refusal, may again be considered by Council on 19 June, 2015.
Sean Murphy, Administrator
Protection of Conscience Project