A deadly contradiction is health care without conscience

Health care
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Health care is a recurring theme in Canadian election debates. Typical debate issues include wait times, bed shortages, and privatized health care. We can now add conscience freedom to that list.

It has long been acknowledged in Canada that healthcare employees have the freedom to refuse to participate in operations that they believe are unethical. Last Thursday, the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP all said that these workers must refer patients to other medical care providers who are willing to do the surgery.

Making provisions for procedures that doctors cannot undertake in good conscience is far from a compromise. Would you be willing to organize a bank heist if you believe robbing a bank is wrong? The parties’ comments are the latest danger to the Canadian healthcare conscience.

A private hospice in British Columbia lost its license to operate after refusing to give assisted suicide. The highest court in Ontario has ruled that doctors can be forced to enable operations that they believe are immoral. A medical student with moral concerns about abortion was expelled from a university in Manitoba.

The erroneous idea that health care consists of whatever a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare practitioner is legally entitled to do fuels opposition to conscientious health care. To be a good healthcare worker, you must be willing to participate in any service classified as health care by the state, regardless of whatever ethical concerns you may have.

These concepts are extremely harmful.

Health care isn’t only what the government says it is. Preserving life, treating the sick, and comforting the dying are all aspects of health care. Health-care personnel is not robot technicians, but human people with a mission, as the pandemic has eloquently demonstrated.

It doesn’t take much thought to see why decoupling health care from ethical issues and reducing it to what the law allows is a dangerous route to travel. This possibility should frighten us all. If this divorce is not finalized, it will have terrible effects on both individuals and society.

Some of us believe we are already witnessing and experiencing these effects. It was difficult to picture euthanasia for the terminally sick being legal in Canada a decade ago. It was unimaginable only a few years ago that people with mental illnesses would ever have access to euthanasia. However, here we are.

Is anyone interested in a healthcare system that forces employees to turn off their moral compass and blindly accept anything the government classifies as health care? When we agree on what is legal, it is simple to say that healthcare workers cannot refuse to participate in whatever services are legal. What happens, though, when we disagree?

Providers of health care who act on their conscience are frequently characterised as unprofessional, indifferent, and even un-Canadian. They are chastised for bringing their personal convictions to work, yet their detractors rely on their own convictions. Take, for example, the charge that conscientious objectors abandon and neglect their patients. It assumes – but does not prove – that what these people refuse to do is equivalent to health care in the appropriate sense. This isn’t a side issue; it’s the crux of the argument.