Kenney says his caucus to get free vote on controversial conscience rights bill

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says members of his caucus would be free to vote as they wish on a private member's bill that calls for giving further protection to health workers who invoke conscience rights.

Kenney says his United Conservative caucus allows free votes on issues of conscience.

"We'll leave it to MLAs to make a decision," Kenney said Friday.

Kenney said he has not read and therefore can't say if he would vote yes to Bill 207, which was put forward by United Conservative backbencher Dan Williams.

But Kenney said, "As a matter of principle I, and I hope everybody, respects the constitutionally protected freedom of conscience."

If Bill 207 is approved, it would mean a health-care provider could not be sued or sanctioned for refusing to provide a service — such as abortion, assisted dying, or contraception — that goes against their moral beliefs.

Right now, Alberta doctors who don't want to perform those services must refer the patient to someone or to a service that can — but the bill raises questions on whether health providers could be sanctioned for failing to do even that.

NDP critic Sarah Hoffman said the bill is a back-door way to restrict access to abortion and contraception. She said she is hearing those concerns from officials in rural areas where access to physicians and services can be limited.

"There's already enough challenges for women to access birth control and abortion services and they (the officials) think this has the risk to make it more difficult and to really hurt rural health care," said Hoffman.

Williams said there is misinformation being circulated about the legislation. He said it seeks only to clarify that health-care providers rights are in line with the Charter.

"I want to be absolutely clear: This bill in no way categorically limits access to any services. That is not my intent. That is not what the bill does."

The Alberta Medical Association has written to Health Minister Tyler Shandro to say the current rules are working and that Williams' bill is unnecessary and is already causing anxiety for doctors and patients.

"The bill may have unintended consequences in limiting patient access to services," AMA president Christine Molnar told Shandro in a public letter sent Wednesday.

"For physicians, the current state protects conscience rights while also ensuring that patients are given information or referral to allow them to pursue access to the desired service.

"This arrangement has served Albertans well and should be maintained."

Williams has said his bill is in response to an Ontario Appeal Court ruling this spring.

Ontario's high court affirmed a lower court ruling that found physicians who object on moral grounds to contentious issues like abortion must offer patients an "effective referral'' to another health provider.

Kenney, a Catholic, has said his government would not legislate on judicially settled hot button issues like abortion.

Kenney said Friday he is keeping to that commitment because Williams, while a member of Kenney's United Conservative caucus, is not in cabinet and is therefore not formally part of the UCP government.

"Private members have every right to bring forward bills, perhaps in some cases that they committed to their constituents on, and they will be voted on freely," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2019.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press