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Conscience rights issue divides Canadians in surprising ways

Earlier this month, when his leadership bid for the Conservative Party of Canada came under fierce criticism over the handling of a taped television interview, Peter MacKay sent a letter to federal Justice Minister David Lametti.

Earlier this month, when his leadership bid for the Conservative Party of Canada came under fierce criticism over the handling of a taped television interview, Peter MacKay sent a letter to federal Justice Minister David Lametti.

MacKay called on Lametti to include “protections for the conscience rights of medical practitioners” when the federal government ponders amended guidelines for physician-assisted death.

The federal government is compelled to change the legislation that came into force in June 2016. In Quebec, Jean Truchon and Nicole Gladu were unable to seek physician-assisted death because their demise did not meet the existing law’s prerequisite of being “natural” and “reasonably foreseeable.”

A court ruling stated that the current regulations prevented Truchon and Gladu from having a “dignified, peaceful death.”

MacKay is trying to establish a connection with Canadians who have voted for the Conservative party in the past and have long voiced their opposition to physician-assisted death.

When Research Co. asked Canadians about these complex matters this month, the situation mirrored the debates that have consumed the country when it comes to the intersection of health care and faith.

In our survey, Canadians were asked to consider three possible instances in which conscience rights could come into play for a health-care professional: serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, gender-diverse, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ2+) people; abortion; and physician-assisted death.

On the issue of service to the LGBTQ2+ community, a majority of Canadians (58%) disagree with extending any conscience rights to health-care professionals. Opposition to establishing this stipulation is highest among Canadians aged 55 and over (62%) and those who voted for the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the last federal election (74%).

Practically half of Canadians (49%) believe health-care professionals should not be allowed to forgo providing services if they have a moral or faith-based objection to abortion, while 39% would be willing to extend this opportunity.

On physician-assisted death, the numbers tighten considerably. While 44% of Canadians would permit health-care professionals to refuse these cases on account of moral or faith-based views, there are 42% who disagree with this course of action.

Regionally, residents of Alberta express the highest level of opposition to conscience rights in cases of LGBTQ2+ patients (64%), abortion (60%) and physician-assisted death (51%).

It would be safe to assume that a province that sent only Conservative party politicians to the House of Commons last year would be more supportive of conscience rights. The explanation for these seemingly befuddling numbers comes from the divisive debate that Albertans went through last year, after Bill 207 was introduced by United Conservative Party lawmaker Dan Williams.

Bill 207 sought to enable health-care practitioners in Alberta to abstain from providing health-care services to an individual if they considered that their conscientious beliefs would be infringed upon.

The extremely loose language of the legislation caused grave concern among several groups of Albertans. Some viewed it as a first step in trying to re-open a debate about abortion, an issue that 53% of Canadians are unwilling to dive into again. Others assumed that the legislation would be used to discriminate against the LGBTQ2+ community, at a time when 58% of Canadians call for a federal ban on the deplorable practice of “conversion therapy.”

In the end, Bill 207 was abandoned. It is not a surprise to see these many Albertans coming out against any attempt to apply a moral tint to the activities of health-care practitioners. Bill 207 was worrisome not because of what it purported to modify, but because of how its relaxed precepts could be exploited in the future.

When Canadians were asked about a bill that sought to allow health-care professionals the ability to have a moral or faith-based objection to providing services in their province, practically half (49%) said they would oppose it, while about two in five (39%) would be in favour of it.

Quebec, which recently experienced the intricacies of the Truchon and Gladu court case, has the lowest level of opposition for such a bill (42%). The highest is observed in Alberta (59%).

There is a lesson from Bill 207 that has ramifications for provincial governments and federal politicians. A party with a majority in the legislature was unconvincing in advancing the notion of conscience rights, partly because of a lack of clarity on constraints and limits. Albertans, who have recently grappled with these discussions, are now more opposed to this type of law than their supposedly more liberal counterparts in other parts of the country. •

Mario Canseco is the president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted February 14–17, 2020, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.