UCP MLA denies conscience rights bill limits health care access

The Alberta UCP MLA behind a controversial bill on conscience rights for health care providers says the bill isn't intended to cut access to services like abortion and medical assistance in dying as critics have charged.

"I feel there is some misinformation about what the bill is trying to do and what it does do," Peace River MLA Dan Williams told reporters Friday.   

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

Williams said Bill 207, introduced in the legislature last week, is intended to reinforce Charter rights to conscience beliefs following an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that upheld a requirement for physicians to provide "effective referrals" to patients. 

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. 

Williams said his bill follows the current standards of practice for conscientious objection from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. 

He points to a section of that document, which compels physicians to either refer a patient to another physician or provide timely access to "a resource that will provide accurate information about all available medical options."

"That's a good position," Williams said. "It lets a lot of concerns be resolved because (with) all these contentious services, they have direct access in Alberta. You have direct access, you do not need a referral to access any of them." 

Dan Williams/Twitter

But a subsequent section of the bill suggests that conscientious objectors are not subject to the rules of any regulatory body that would compel them to make statements to patients that violate their values or beliefs.

Bill provokes backlash

Bill 207 has provoked backlash from the public and groups like the Alberta Medical Association and Dying with Dignity Canada. 

LGBTQ advocates are concerned the bill could be used to deny health care to transgender Albertans. Others worry it could limit women's access to abortion and contraception. 

Williams has been open about his opposition to abortion.

On Friday, the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) released a letter sent to the chair of the standing committee on private bills and private members' public bills that outlines concerns that Bill 207 could have a "disproportionate" effect on women, including those who are Indigenous, racialized, LGBTQ or from rural areas.

Not a government bill 

Cabinet ministers have distanced themselves from Williams' bill over the past week, with many claiming they haven't read it, a statement echoed by Premier Jason Kenney on Friday. 

Kenney promised during the election that a UCP government would not legislate on contentious social issues like abortion. When asked about that vow, Kenney relied on another point his ministers have made over the past week — the bill is coming from a private member, not from the government. 

"Private members have every right to bring forward bills, perhaps in some cases, that they committed to their constituents on," Kenney said. "And they will be voted on freely both as private members bills and as matters of conscience." 

Yellowhead County Mayor Sandra Cherniawsky, who lives in Evansburg, west of Edmonton, worries the bill could restrict services to rural residents who may only have access to one physician in their community. 

"I use the example of birth control," she said. "But if the doctor doesn't believe in it and he believes that young women should abstain, how can you push those beliefs onto the general public?"

Cherniawsky raised her concerns during an open microphone session with Alberta cabinet ministers at the Rural Municipalities of Alberta convention in Edmonton on Friday. 

The question was fielded by Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, who serves as the UCP government house leader. 

"We've heard loud and clear your concerns about this piece of legislation and we're hearing from people across the province on their different views on that," Nixon said

Williams will appear before the legislature's standing committee on private bills and private members' public bills on Monday.

The committee, made up of UCP and NDP MLAs, will decide if the bill should return to the house for debate.