Protesters say Alberta bill would make it harder to access some medical services

EDMONTON — Opponents of a private member's bill that calls for more protection for health workers who invoke conscience rights gathered at the Alberta legislature Saturday, arguing the bill would limit access to medical services such as abortions or assisted dying.

Speakers with groups including Friends of Medicare, the Alberta Abortion Access Network and Dying With Dignity told the crowd that people in small communities already have a hard time getting access and advice on some issues.

Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson, with the Alberta Abortion Access Network, said Google isn't much help if a health-care worker in rural Alberta refuses to provide a patient with information about abortion or refer them to someone who will.

"What's the first thing that comes up? That's right, 'pregnancy care centres.' And we all know that those are nothing more than thinly veiled religious indoctrination centres that want to keep people from exercising their right to reproductive health care," Reinhardt-Simpson said.

She added that it delays a woman's right to get the advice she's seeking.

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

As it stands, 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 about whether health-care providers could be sanctioned for failing to do even that.

The bill has passed first reading and rally organizers said a committee will meet Monday to discuss whether it should proceed for further debate in the legislature.

Premier Jason Kenney has said his government would not legislate on judicially settled hot button issues like abortion, and told reporters Friday he is keeping to that commitment because the United Conservative Party member who's behind the bill isn't in cabinet and therefore isn't formally part of the UCP government.

He said he hadn't even read the legislation from UCP backbencher Dan Williams, and therefore couldn't say how he'd vote on it.

But Opposition NDP MLA Janis Irwin told the rally that Kenney "is a premier who runs everything from the centre" and that he must know what's in the bill.

"He and his 'uterus control party' can finally make their dreams come true," Irwin said. 

Williams has said the bill seeks only to clarify that health-care providers rights are in line with the Charter and won't limit access to any services.

But Claire Brown, who attended Saturday's rally, said if people can't get the health-care advice they want, it's the same as being denied the service.

"It does nothing but promote discrimination in an already divided province," Brown said.

Tracy Kennedy, who drove to the rally from Red Deer, said she believes most voters want the government to avoid divisive issues and focus on getting people back to work.

"It seems like it's a very insidious kind of chipping away at some of these rights that we have and limiting our access to health care," Kennedy said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2019.

The Canadian Press