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

Service, not Servitude

Looking back on 15 years: an anniversary

December, 1999 to December, 2014


Sean Murphy*
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The Protection of Conscience Project celebrates its 15th anniversary in December, 2014. The formation of the Project was one of the eventual results of a meeting in Vancouver with British Columbian Senator Ray Perrault1 in the spring of 1999.

Senator Perrault wished to continue the work of retiring Liberal Senator, Stanley Haidasz, whose protection of conscience bill was stalled in the upper chamber.2 Among the experiences that spurred Senator Perrault to continue Senator Haidasz's work was an encounter while going door to door during an election campaign. A nurse, in tears, told him that she had quit work after 15 years because she was required to participate in abortions, and could no longer do so in good conscience.

The meeting was sponsored by the Catholic Physicians Guild of Vancouver. Most participants were physicians or pharmacists. They spoke of their growing concern that they would be penalized or forced out of their professions if they continued to practise in accordance with their religious or moral beliefs. It became clear that these health care professionals had come to recognize the growing threat to their freedom to serve their patients without violating their personal and professional integrity. This was a key factor in the establishment of the Protection of Conscience Project nine months later.

While the meeting in 1999 was called by a Catholic organization, the Protection of Conscience Project is a non-profit, non-denominational initiative that does not take a position on the acceptability of morally contested procedures like abortion, contraception or euthanasia: not even on torture. The focus is exclusively on freedom of conscience and religion.

The Project is supported by an Advisory Board drawn from different disciplines and religious traditions, a Human Rights Specialist and an Administrator, all of whom serve without remuneration.3 It was conceived as an initiative rather than an organization, association or society; it has no 'members' or structures of an incorporated entity. This ensures that the time and energy that would otherwise be needed to maintain corporate structures is spent on more immediately practical work. The name originated in a comment made by Iain Benson, then Senior Research Fellow of Canada's Centre for Cultural Renewal, now Senior Resident Scholar, Massey College, University of Toronto.4

"We don't need another organization," he said. "We need a project."

The people best placed to deal with a problem are those directly involved, and health care workers are encouraged to become active in the defence of their own fundamental freedoms. The Project was originally intended to provide reliable on-line resources for them, and this is still its principal activity. The Administrator maintains the website, and the Advisors review the site periodically to ensure that visitors be confident that the materials posted are reliable and credible. Submissions, presentations and other extended commentary or potentially controversial papers are submitted for review by the Advisors. The use made of Project resources indicates that this arrangement is working satisfactorily. For example:

- A three part commentary on the original Quebec euthanasia bill was translated into Turkish and published this year in a criminal law journal by Özyeğin University in Istanbul.5

- Project resources have been cited or quoted in at least 15 professional or academic texts published since 2006, such as Canadian Health Law and Policy (4th ed.)6 and Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise (MIT Press).7

In addition to maintaining the website, the Project has, from the outset, promoted clarification and understanding of the issues involved, advocated for protection of conscience legislation, critiqued policies of coercion and encouraged accommodation of objecting health care workers. It has facilitated communication and co-operation among protection of conscience advocates and assisted victims of discrimination, directing them to legal assistance and other support when possible.

Over time, and in response to particular needs or circumstances, additional activities have been undertaken that were not foreseen when the Project began, but which are consistent with its original purposes.

- Upon invitation, the Administrator has made presentations to various groups.8

- Formal submissions have occasionally been made to government or regulatory agencies.9

- Reports on specific problems have been prepared to address specific issues or assist individuals in difficulty. Consistent with Project policies on protection of personal information, most of these are not public.10

In 2014, the Project joined the Catholic Civil Rights League and Faith and Freedom Alliance in an intervention at the Supreme Court of Canada in Carter v. Canada, a landmark case on the legalization of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. The intervention stressed the need for the Court to provide legislatures with adequate direction to preserve freedom of conscience among health care workers should the Court strike down current legal prohibitions.11

Occasional feedback indicates that the Project is providing a useful service:

- Thanks so much.  This is fantastic.  Well done . . .  Excellent. (Denominational professional association)

- I am a Registered Nurse . . . and I am currently completing my Masters in Nursing. My thesis topic is based on conflicts of conscience on the NICU. I have found your website to be very informative and helpful.

- As a busy medical student it is so nice to know there is a reliable and comprehensive source out there! So thank you.

- Wow ! Some very deep thinking here ... just what I need to create a better paper. I have only spent a small fraction of the time that you have spent on conscience rights, so this is extremely helpful. (Lawyer preparing argument)

Physicians and other health care workers who are the targets of harassment and discrimination because of their adherence to their beliefs frequently feel shaken, isolated and vulnerable. The most gratifying comments have come from them:

- What a breath of fresh air your e-mail has been ! Thank you. I await correspondence with the lawyer.(Physician subject of complaint)

- I really like what you've been doing and I am so grateful. To do the same would have taken me wks or months at the rate I am going with the clinical and home work . . .it may be thanks to your gifts and work that we may continue to exercise our profession. (Physician subject of complaint)

The exercise of freedom of conscience is repeatedly characterized in some quarters as "the problem of conscientious objection,"12 which means, bluntly, the problem caused by people who refuse to do what they believe to be wrong. The underlying premise is that people really ought to do what they believe to be wrong, at least when they are told to do so by the state or by the leaders of their profession.

But that the state can legitimately compel people to do what they believe to be wrong and punish them if they refuse is a dangerous idea that turns foundational ethical principles upside down. The inversion is worrisome, especially when "a duty to do what is believed to be wrong" involves killing people.

In 2011 an"expert panel"convened by the Royal Society of Canada recommended legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. The experts stated that if "religious or moral conscience" prevents health care professionals from providing euthanasia or assisted suicide, "they are duty bound to refer their patients to a health care professional who will."13

Notice; the expert panel is not content simply to encourage and allow willing health care professionals to kill patients in defined circumstances. They insist that health care professionals must kill patients, or must help patients find someone willing to kill them - even if they believe it to be wrong, even if they believe it to be murder.

To hold that the state or a profession can, in justice, compel an unwilling soul to commit what he sees as murder, or even to facilitate what he sees as murder, and justly punish him for refusing to do so - that is extraordinary, and extraordinarily dangerous. For if the state or a profession can require citizens to kill or help to kill someone else - even if they believe that doing so is murder - what can it not require?

The experience of the last 15 years suggests that the robust defence and promotion of freedom of conscience is eminently justified to protect everyone from what may ultimately prove to be a particularly far-reaching and even deadly form of authoritarianism.


 1.  Raymond Perrault served as leader of the provincial Liberal Party in British Columbia and member of the legislative assembly from 1960 to 1968. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1968 and sat as a Liberal M.P. until he was defeated in the 1972 election. The following year he was appointed to the Canadian Senate and served there until 2001.

2.  Bill S-7: An Act to amend the Criminal Code for the purpose of preventing coercion
in medical procedures that offend against conscience.
(Haidasz bill)

3.  Protection of Conscience Project, Advisory Board and Team

4.  Professor Iain T. Benson, BA (Hons.), MA (Cantab.), JD, PhD, is an academic, lecturer and practicing lawyer whose work focuses on constitutional law and human rights with particular focus on religious liberty, the nature of pluralism and multi-culturalism and the relationship between law, religion and human rights.

5.  Unver, Prof. Dr. H.C.Y. (Ed). Tıp / Sağlık Hukuku - Karşılaştırmalı Güncel Ceza Hukuku Serisi 14. [Medical Criminal Law- Comparative Current Criminal Law Series, Vol. 14] Istanbul: Özyeğin University, 2014

6.  Nelson E. "Regulating Reproduction." In Downie J, Caufield T, Floor CM. (Eds.) Canadian Health Law and Policy (4th ed.) Canada: LexisNexis, 2011

7.  Fernandez-Lynch H. Conflicts of Conscience in Health Care: An Institutional Compromise.
Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press 2008. For other examples, see Citations of Project Resources

8.  Protection of Conscience Project, Presentations

9.  Protection of Conscience Project, Submissions

10.  Protection of Conscience Project, Reports

11.  Murphy S. "Project Backgrounder Re: Joint intervention in Carter v. Canada." Supreme Court of Canada, 15 October, 2014.  Protection of Conscience Project.

12.  Cannold L. "The questionable ethics of unregulated conscientious refusal."  ABC Religion and Ethics, 25 March, 2011. (Accessed 2013-08-11)

Human Rights Council, Twentieth session, Agenda items 2 and 3: Annual Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights- Technical guidance on the application of a human rightsbased approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce preventable maternal morbidity and mortality (2 July, 20012) para. 61, 30 (Accessed 2013-08-11)

O'Rourke A, De Crespigny L, and Pyman A. "Abortion and Conscientious Objection: The New Battleground" (July 10, 2012). Monash Law Review (2012) Vol 38(3): 87-119. (Accessed 2013-08-18)

Finer L., Fine JB., "Abortion Law Around the World: Progress and Pushback."  American Journal of Public Health, Apr 2013, Vol. 103 Issue 4, p. 585. (Accessed 2013-08-18)

Human Rights Council, 23nd Session - June 3, 2013.  Agenda Item 3: Presentation of Reports by the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. Oral Statement: Center for Reproductive Rights (Accessed 20-13-08-11)

13.   Schuklenk U, van Delden J.J.M, Downie J, McLean S, Upshur R, Weinstock D. Report of the Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel on End-of-Life Decision Making (November, 2011) p. 62, 69, 101 (Accessed 2014-02-23)