An Ontario court has ruled that doctors who are opposed to assisted suicide must refer patients who request the procedure to other physicians who are willing to carry it out.
On Wednesday, the three justices of the Ontario Superior Court acknowledged that the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) policy requiring doctors to refer patients for procedures that they refuse to perform, such as euthanasia and abortion, violates their Charter right to religious freedom.
However, the court contended that in light of the goal of "ensuring access to health care," the policy presents "reasonable limit on religious freedom, demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."
According to The Canadian Press, the legal challenge to the CPSO policy was launched by a group of five doctors and three professional organizations, namely, the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada (CMDSC), the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians' Societies (CFCPS) and Canadian Physicians for Life (CPL).
The group argued that the requirement amounted to being forced to take part in the treatment and infringed on their right to freedom of religion and conscience.
The CPSO, on the other hand, contended that the policy was aimed at balancing the moral beliefs of individual physicians while nonetheless ensuring access to care.
The court contended that the breach to the doctors' religious freedom is justified, noting that the benefits to the public outweigh the cost to physicians who can choose to practice a specialty where they will not encounter such moral dilemmas.
"The goal of ensuring access to health care, in particular equitable access to health care, is pressing and substantial. The effective referral requirements of the policies are rationally connected to the goal," Justice Herman J. Wilton-Siegel wrote on behalf of the panel.
"The requirements impair the individual applicants' right of religious freedom as little as reasonably possible in order to achieve the goal," he added.
CPL President Dr. Ryan Wilson decried the court's decision, saying it puts doctors "who entered the field of medicine to provide quality, compassionate, and patient-centered care" in "an impossible position."
"They don't believe ending a patient's life is medicine, and they don't believe they can offer hope and healing in one room while assisting in killing a patient in another," he remarked.
Some observers have said that the court did not go far enough to protect the rights of patients to receive care.
Udo Schuklenk, a bioethicist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., acknowledged that protections for conscientious objectors are valuable in situations such as military conscription, but asserted that they have no place in professions like medicine, in which people participate voluntarily. He went on to note that some countries, such as Sweden and Finland, do not allow for moral objections in medicine.
Larry Worthen, executive director of the CMDSC, said that there was "no evidence that conscientious objection ever results in a failure of access" to these practices, and that "the implications for physicians were serious and more than trivial or insubstantial." He said that the doctors are now reviewing their options in regards to an appeal.