Reproduced with permission
Raymond J. de Souza
What happens to fundamental rights when a free and democratic society ceases to be one? That’s the question raised by a decision of the Ontario Superior Court last week.
The court was petitioned by doctors who want nothing to do with “medical assistance in dying,” namely they do not want to use their expertise and professional status to procure the death of their patients. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) has a policy that requires physicians who do not want to administer lethal treatment to their patients to arrange for their patients to see someone who will. It’s called an “effective referral.” Doctors are therefore mandated to “effect” something that they object to.
Consider a patient who, after a bit of intensive internet research, asks his doctor for a particular drug or course of therapy. The doctor refuses. In her professional judgment the treatment is not in the best interests of the patient. The patient then asks the doctor to arrange for that same treatment from another physician, to “effect” that treatment despite her judgment that it is not appropriate.
The doctor would likely remind the patient that he is free to seek a second opinion, or even seek out another doctor altogether. But the patient’s wish does not override her professional opinion; the doctor is not a waiter taking an order.
What if the patient instead asks to be killed? Then, according to the CPSO, the doctor becomes a service provider, not a professional with a different judgment, much less a citizen with conscientious objections. A doctor can refuse to prescribe the latest weight-loss drug, but must “effect” a lethal injection.
The court, in a unanimous decision, found that the CPSO policy violates doctors’ charter right to religious freedom. (It did not rule on freedom of conscience, but presumably the same would apply.) It further found that the infringement was neither “trivial” or “insubstantial.”
So the court found a serious infringement of a fundamental freedom guaranteed by the charter, and yet upheld the “effective referral” policy, finding that it was a “reasonable limit on religious freedom, demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Reasonable to whom? Not to the physician who finds abortion abhorrent, and now must to some degree facilitate it. Not to the doctor who wants her infirm patients to know that she would never hasten their deaths, but now is required to co-operate in just that.
The charter permits infringements on rights that are “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” But what happens when society is no longer keen on certain freedoms or certain democratic rights? Or at least when the judges hearing the case think fundamental freedoms not quite so fundamental after all?
The Ontario judges simply decided that they did not think (in this case) that the right to religious freedom was that important. How do we know that? Because the judges accepted that there is “no evidence that conscientious objection results in a failure of access.” So even though a religious or conscientious objection does not impede what a particular policy is attempting to provide, it still can be infringed upon.
Indeed, what makes the Ontario decision all the harder to fathom is that in other provinces there is no equivalent of the CPSO “effective referral” policy. In the internet age, it is not hard for willing doctors to make themselves known. In some provinces the government itself keeps a registry that patients can access. There is no need — as currently demonstrated in other parts of Canada — to force doctors to effect that to which they object.
The only logic that holds the Ontario decision together is that freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are relatively unimportant in a “free and democratic society.” Indeed, the CPSO decision sets the bar of “reasonable limits” so low that it is hard to imagine what would constitute an unreasonable limit.
The answer to that of course is clear, though left unstated. An unreasonable limit is one the judges don’t like. A reasonable one is one that they do.
A palliative-care physician in Ontario who does not wish to participate in assisted suicide now has very good reason to move to Alberta, where she will not be required to effect it. How that helps patients in Ontario is not clear.
It is all quite unreasonable. At least it would be in a free and democratic society.