'This is redundant': 2 UCP members announce opposition to conscience rights bill

Two members of the United Conservative Party have announced their opposition to a conscience rights bill critics say would restrict access to health care.

Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie said Bill 207, a private member's bill purported to reinforce Charter rights to conscience beliefs, is complicated and ambiguous.

"We have freedom of conscience. We have freedom of religion already," Guthrie told CBC News on Saturday. "This is redundant. I think it adds to red tape."

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer shared his support for Guthrie's stance on Twitter Saturday, saying he'll vote against the bill unless major changes are made.

Bill 207 says a health-care provider or religious health-care organization is not required to provide a health-care service, including "the provision of a formal or informal referral in respect of a patient" that violates their personal beliefs.

Critics of the controversial bill fear it could limit access to reproductive health care, medical assistance in dying and health-care services for trans people.

Guthrie said that worries him.

"There are multiple areas where this falls short," he said.

"A bill like this is going to end up in the judicial system and that's going to do nothing but cause the court system to have problems."

Craig Ryan/CBC

Peace River MLA Dan Williams introduced the bill to the legislature last week. He has said the intention is to reinforce Charter rights to conscience beliefs — not to limit access to certain health-care services.

Guthrie said he believes in freedom of speech, which is why he voted in favour of the bill at its first reading. Doing so gave the bill a chance to be heard, he said.

"It's nice that we can have these conversations and be able to disagree on them and still have a very good working relationship," Guthrie said.

Guthrie said the government isn't telling UCP MLAs how to vote on the bill.

'This is a test'

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said she doesn't buy that UCP members will vote freely.

"Probably, the outcome of this vote has been predetermined by the conservative caucus," Notley told reporters on Saturday. "I don't exactly know where they'll land."

Notley said the NDP is staunchly opposed to the "extremist bill."

Dan Williams/Twitter

"The UCP as a whole has an unhealthy obsession with the desire to control women's bodies," she said.

"Playing games like this encourages the restriction of those health-care rights that people otherwise should enjoy."

Many UCP members have said they haven't read the bill — a statement echoed by Premier Jason Kenney on Friday.

Bill 207 doesn't come from the UCP government but some people at a protest at the Alberta Legislature on Saturday expressed their frustration with the party.

"This is a test," said Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson, founder of the Alberta Abortion Access Network and one of approximately 200 attendees at the protest. "This is meant to see how far the UCP can go."

She said she worries Bill 207 will lead to a floodgate of "hand-me-down" anti-abortion legislation from the United States.

Gabrielle Brown/Radio-Canada

Sandra Azocar is the executive director of Friends of Medicare, which helped organized Saturday's protest.

"It's an unnecessary bill and it will cause … a great deal of harm to a lot of Albertans," she said.

Azocar said conscience rights are already protected.

"I don't know what [Williams is] talking about in terms of what further protections are needed," she said. "The only protections that you're affording people is the protection for you to be able to discriminate."

Bill 207 will be heard by the legislature's standing committee on private bills and private members' public bills on Monday.