As doctors and medical associations speak out against Alberta’s controversial conscience rights bill, which would allow doctors to refuse referrals for services they’re morally or religiously opposed to, such as abortion or assisted dying, the province’s premier remains silent.
The private member’s bill introduced by United Conservative Party (UCP) MLA Dan Williams passed first reading last week, with unanimous support from the party’s MLAs in attendance for the vote. It will now move to a second reading, which involves debate in the Alberta legislature.
Alberta premier Jason Kenney has not come out in favour of or against the bill, which has been widely criticized as a “back-door” way to reopen the abortion debate there. When campaigning ahead of last spring’s provincial election, Kenney promised his party would not engage in any debates around abortion.
“A United Conservative government will not address this issue, will not engage in this debate, will not initiate legislation,” he said in February.
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University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas says Kenney’s silence on the bill and allowing it to pass first reading represents a “broken promise.”
“I think it’s fair to say this is a broken promise, where the premier says during a campaign, ‘we are not even going to have a debate about reproductive rights’. This is a this is a debate about reproductive rights,” she told HuffPost.
Will some please stand up?
If made law, the bill would let doctors refuse treatments or to refer patients for treatments they are “morally” opposed to. These could include things like abortions, gender-affirming surgery or contraception.
It is a private member’s bill, meaning it was not introduced by the premier or cabinet, but rather a back-bencher MLA, so it has a much more difficult path to become law. However, Thomas says Kenney’s silence on it, coupled with the unanimous voting support from UCP MLAs in attendance, points to inherent support from the premier.
Thomas compared Kenney’s silence to similar legislation during Stephen Harper’s federal government, when Kenney was a cabinet minister. While private members were permitted to introduce legislation related to abortion or conscience rights, Harper would come out strongly against it.
“Stephen Harper as party leader and government leader would stand up right away and say ‘I don’t support this, this isn’t a priority of our government’,” she said.
Kenney himself voted in favour of anti-abortion legislation while an MP under Harper. Thomas noted that Kenney’s silence could also be an attempt to throw a bone to more socially conservative factions of the party.
“I think it’s reasonable for the public to infer that he thinks that this is a good idea, either because of the content of the policy or because he is helping him manage potential internal divisions within the party,” she told HuffPost Canada.
The UCP formed in 2017 after the Progressive Conservative Party and the more socially conservative Wildrose Party merged under a single banner.
WATCH: Jason Kenney aiming to ‘bury the hatchet’ with Wildrose Party. Story continues below.
The premiers’ office did not respond to HuffPost’s request regarding Kenney’s stance on the bill. A representative from the premier’s office reasserted that it was a private member’s bill and that conscience rights are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
They also denied that votes were whipped for the first reading.
“Private member’s bills are typically free votes, and our party explicitly committed to that in our platform,” the statement read.
However, Thomas says all the signs point to the bill passing.
“If the premier was speaking about this differently, and if they were sending cues and signals that were different, I could, with confidence, say like a typical private member’s bill, this will probably fail on the second reading,” Thomas said. “But I am seeing none of that.”
At the Alberta Section of Neurology Annual General Meeting over the weekend, there was a motion calling on the Alberta Medical Association to formally “take a strong stance” in opposition to the bill.
“This legislation opens the door to allowing physicians to discriminate freely and deny care along any number of “conscience” lines such as gender, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation,” the motion read.
The Alberta Medical Association did not respond to a request for comment from HuffPost.
In a letter posted to Facebook and emailed to UCP MLAs over the weekend, Alberta physician Jillian Maxine Demontigny said she was “gravely concerned” about the bill.
“Refusal to provide care falls far below standards of care,” she wrote.
Thomas acknowledged that even if the bill does pass into law, it likely would not withstand a court challenge. Earlier this year, an Ontario court ruled against a similar conscience rights appeal. However, while legal challenges are ongoing, many vulnerable populations could be without vital services.
“In the amount of time that would take for, like a delay to happen between like this legislation passing and a court challenge coming, I worry about what that means, especially for folks in rural parts of the province,” she said.