Women's reproductive rights still an issue in Alberta, Friends of Medicare says

AHS raises age limit for Sexual and Reproductive Health clinic patients in Calgary Zone

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked International Women's Day by promising $650 million for reproductive health and rights around the world.

But there are some in Alberta who believe those rights are still limited here at home.

In a recent online forum, a woman claims her Edmonton doctor of 10 years suddenly stopped prescribing birth control pills and IUDs [intrauterine devices] for his own personal reasons.

"Did I just step back into the '60s?" she writes. "How is this even something that happens in this decade? In Canada ... "

It's a complaint the Friends of Medicare, a health-care accessibility advocacy group, often hears. But according to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, the doctor is well within his rights.

"Physicians, like anyone else, can change their minds," said CPSA spokesperson Kelly Eby. 

"If a physician has an experience or learns something new that leads them to change their beliefs, we would see no issue with that. As long as they follow the rules I outlined from the standard of practice, then the college would not be concerned."

Under its standard of practice, the CPSA's "conscientious objection" section is based on its interpretation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, more specifically, freedom of conscience and religion.

"The legal advice that we've received is that is a reasonable expectation, that physicians can make a choice on the services they provide but there have to be some rules in place about when they say no," said Eby. "That has to be balanced with a patients right to legally available and appropriate care." 

Those rules include certain steps a doctor must take if they decide they do not want to provide a prescription or treatment based on their beliefs.

"They [doctors] must communicate promptly and respectfully about the treatment the patient is inquiring about," said Eby. "They can't withhold information simply because they don't support it morally ... and they can't promote their own moral or religious beliefs."

Physicians must also provide access to another physician who can offer the patient information and advice about the options available to them.

The Friends of Medicare says it's time for a change.

"People should take a pause and think as to whether religion has a role in making those types of decisions," said executive director Sandra Azocar. "Specifically if they're providing services under a public-funded and publicly delivered system."  

Azocar considers this case discrimination. 

"When somebody's imposing their moral beliefs on somebody else, then it becomes a discriminatory situation," said Azocar who is calling for the law to be clearer and for the CPSA to change its interpretation of that law.

"I think the college needs to take a leading role in terms of clarifying the expectations that physicians have to work under," said Azocar. "And certainly clearly define what it means to provide services in a system that should be free of religious discrimination."