Protection of Conscience at the Ontario Court of Appeal

News Release

Protection of Conscience Project

On 21/21 January the Protection of Conscience Project jointly intervened at the Court of Appeal of Ontario to support freedom of conscience against an oppressive policy of Ontario’s state medical regulator, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO). CPSO policies demand that physicians who object to morally contested procedures – including euthanasia and assisted suicide – must help patients find a colleague willing to provide the contested services.

The Court was hearing the appeal of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, Canadian Physicians for Life and five individual physicians against an Ontario Divisional Court decision . The Divisional Court had ruled in favour of the CPSO, ruling, in effect, that physicians unwilling to do what they believed to be wrong by providing “effective referrals” were free to move to medical specialties where they would not face conflicts of conscience.

Expert evidence from the appellants indicated that it is extremely difficult for physicians to retrain, and that only 2.5 per cent of all physician positions in Canada would be “safe” for objecting physicians: pathology, hair loss, obesity medicine, sleep disorders and research were among the few available specialities.

The appellants’ submissions were supported by the intervention of the Ontario Medical Association, representing more than 41,000 practising and retired physicians, medical students and residents.

Joining the Project as “Conscience Interveners” were the Catholic Civil Rights League and Faith and Freedom Alliance. The joint submission noted the difference between perfective freedom of conscience (doing what one believes to be good) and preservative freedom of conscience (refusing to do what one believes to be wrong), a distinction hitherto ignored in judicial analysis.

Acknowledging that freedom of conscience can be limited to safeguard the common good, the Conscience Interveners argued that it does not follow that limits on perfective and preservative freedom of conscience can be justified on the same grounds or to the same extent.

The joint intervention drew the Court’s attention to the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson in R v. Morgentaler, the only extended discussion of freedom of conscience in Canadian jurisprudence. Justice Wilson’s reasoning drew upon the key principle that humans are not a means to an end, and we should never be exploited by someone as a tool to serve someone else’s good – a principle championed by people like Martin Luther King Jr.

This principle – identified as the principle against servitude – was proposed as a principle of fundamental justice, a novel and constitutionally significant assertion. Alternatively, the Conscience Interveners argued that the principle against servitude is so foundational to human rights and freedoms it is difficult to imagine how violating it might be justified.

Forcing someone to participate in perceived wrongdoing demands the submission of intellect, will, and conscience, and violates the principle against servitude by reducing that person to the status of a tool to be used by others. This manner of servitude cannot be reconciled with principles of equality. It is an assault on human dignity that deprives physicians of their essential humanity.

Factum of the Conscience Interveners

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, B’nai Brith, and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms intervened in support of the physician appellants. Dying With Dignity Canada and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association intervened against them.

The Court reserved its decision.

Related: CCRL news release

Contact: Sean Murphy, Administrator, Protection of Conscience Project Email: protection@consciencelaws.org

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