** Update: Conscience rights ignite online debate
It may be a policy drawn up from an earlier political incarnation, but Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith is sticking by a party members’ wish to “ensure conscience rights for marriage commissioners and health professionals.”
Smith initially made the comment in a civil liberties questionnaire drawn up by the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association and issued to several provincial political leaders and leadership candidates.
To some, “conscience rights for marriage commissioners and health professionals” is social-conservative code for curtailing a woman’s right to seek abortion or oral contraceptives, and denying gays the right to marry.
So, in this context, a marriage commissioner could arguably make a case against performing an interracial marriage because of personal beliefs; a doctor or nurse could deny treating a gay person because of their religious beliefs. In an interview with Fast Forward Weekly, Smith says Albertans, particularly health-care workers and marriage commissioners, should have the right to deny health care and same-sex marriages if they think the practise is against their beliefs. “We know that there are some people who have a religious objection to performing those marriages, so we think the solution that has been tried in other provinces is a reasonable one where somebody who does have an objection to doing that would make a referral to another marriage commissioner so that those marriages can be performed,” she says.
Same-sex marriage was legalized by the federal government in 2005, though then-Alberta-premier Ralph Klein threatened to evoke the Charter of Rights’ notwithstanding clause to exempt the province from the law. Klein backed down — “much to our chagrin” — after legal experts said the argument would likely fail if challenged. In essence, Smith is reopening this can of worms.
Since 2005, 1,386 same-sex marriages have been performed in Alberta, with 75 per cent presided by marriage commissioners, who, by law, cannot opt out. “The charter says that people in same-sex marriages be treated equally under Alberta legislation,” says Mike Berezowsky, spokesperson for Service Alberta.
Same-sex marriages and medical procedures, such as abortions, evoke powerful reactions in people with “strong religious convictions,” says Smith. Balancing their beliefs and rights with those of gay couples and patients shouldn’t be a black-and-white situation, she adds.
“Unfortunately, how these two issues have played out in the past is we have created winners and losers,” says Smith. “We’ve created tiers of rights. We’ve said that some people’s rights are more important than other people’s rights. We don’t believe that. We think that everybody has a right to be respected.”
Dan Shapiro, a research associate for the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, says the issues are “certainly not easily captured in a one- or two-line policy statement because they’re difficult and complex.”
The line is clear in the case of commissioners performing same-sex marriages, says Shapiro. As public servants, marriage commissioners are expected to respect and follow laws, he says. “If you’re unwilling to officiate all types of legal weddings then you basically shouldn’t be in that role.”
It gets murkier when dealing with medical issues. The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons prohibits doctors from discriminating because of race, sex, age, ethnic origin or medical condition. But doctors can opt to arrange for another health professional to provide treatment to a patient if all parties agree to that arrangement.
Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, says the expectation in the nursing profession is that patients should be treated equal regardless of race, colour, creed or sexual orientation. “That’s the very thing about the Canadian health-care system,” she says. “It’s not based on who they are, or what they are or what they have. It’s a person.”
Employers typically avoid placing their workers in situations where they may be uncomfortable, but “ideally you shouldn’t be working in an area where you have concerns about that,” Smith adds.
Alberta pharmacists who object to providing certain products, such as oral contraceptives, bear a responsibility to be transparent with their patients, says Greg Eberhart, registrar for the College of Pharmacists.
“Any health profession better be about taking care of individuals and really respecting the health needs of those individuals,” says Eberhart. “But I don’t think that we can deny that there are individuals who have some type of moral or conscience belief that may be in conflict with the need of the patient.”
In such a case, the pharmacist is expected to provide some guidance or have a pre-planned arrangement where the individual could access alternate care.
“Our code of ethics really focuses on the responsibility to individuals, society and the profession,” says Eberhart. “When we choose to become health professionals we make a decision to serve.”
However, the danger in allowing state officials the option to provide treatment based on personal or religious beliefs, rather than government policy, opens the door to “all sorts of abuses,” says Shapiro.
Imagine, he says, a marriage commissioner who refuses to perform an interracial marriage on religious or personal grounds. “It seems to me that the discrimination on the part of an agent of the state strikes us as much more in-your-face and much less justifiable.”