Refinery29 with Melanee Thomas 8 November 2019
Alberta doctors could refuse to refer women to abortion practitioners if a bill currently making its way through the provincial legislature is passed. Bill 207 would protect doctors from referring patients to procedures that conflict with their personal beliefs.
If it becomes law, the bill would be a blow to reproductive rights in the province. While abortion is legal across Canada, provinces regulate and determine access. And in Alberta, that access is already hit and miss. Crisis pregnancy centres — basically anti-choice centres masquerading as women’s support groups — outnumber clinics that provide abortions four to one. People outside of Calgary and Edmonton have limited access to clinics where surgical abortions take place, and it’s up to individual physicians to decide if they want to prescribe the abortion pill.
The private member’s bill was tabled Thursday by Dan Williams, a backbench member of the province’s United Conservative Party, and would amend the Alberta Human Rights Act. “Health care providers should never have to choose between their most deeply held beliefs and their job,” said Williams in a statement. “Let me be clear, this bill not only protects freedom of conscience, but it also in no way limits access to health care services in the province,” the statement reads.
Williams, the MPP for Peace River in the Northern Alberta, confirmed he was pro-life when he attended an anti-abortion rally in May. He’s since shut down accusations that Bill 207 is about limiting abortion access; claiming it’s about preventing “moral distress” for doctors when it came to certain procedures. Currently, doctors can opt out of a procedure if it conflicts with their “freedom of conscience and religion,” however they must refer a patient to another doctor who will provide the service, or a resource that outlines other options.
Effectively putting a doctor’s personal beliefs ahead of patients’ health is a slippery slope, especially when it comes to women’s reproductive health and services for the LGBTQ+ community, say critics of the bill.
“Imagine if you got endometriosis and someone said, ‘Because of my religious beliefs, you don’t get the health care you need,’” says Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
“I can’t see this being anything other than another backdoor attempt to bring forward legislation specifically looking at abortion, reproductive services, perhaps questions around gender and diverse communities that are seeking treatment from medical doctors,” Alberta NDP Health Critic David Shepherd told the CBC. “I think this seems clear, given Mr. Williams’ background, given the associations that he’s had, that this is intended to try and open the door for more conversation about limiting reproductive rights.”
Thomas sees the bill as a political play. “This is about appealing to the social Conservative base, to the Wilberforce project,” she says, the latter referring to the provincial pro-life advocacy group. “People have already said this is the most anti-choice legislature that we’ve ever had in Alberta,” she says of Jason Kenney’s government.
The bill will need to go through second and third readings before it can become law.
Refinery29 has reached out to Williams for comment.
Melanee Thomas is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.