By Andrew Ehrkamp
News Editor

Catholics across Canada are being called to help protect religious freedom by supporting Ontario doctors in their fight against physician-assisted dying.

“What we really need is civil disobedience,” said Larry Worthen, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society and a deacon in Archdiocese of Dartmouth, N.S. “And people should just continue to act according to their faith.”

Worthen provided an update on the Ontario court case to the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, which met in Edmonton this weekend.

A conscience rights bill that was voted down in the Ontario legislature three weeks ago would have protected physicians from making decisions against their personal values, including physician-assisted suicide which was legalized last year.

Under College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario rules, doctors may be fined or even lose their licence if they fail to provide an “effective referral” for assisted suicide when asked.

Starting on June 13, that referral is being challenged in Ontario district court by the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience, a group of Catholic and religious organizations including the Christian Medical and Dental Society.

“To force us to refer, for medical aid in dying or any other procedure, is essentially usurping our constitutional rights,” Worthen said.

“We don’t do the deed but for us, actually making the referral to do the deed, is equivalent to actually doing the deed itself.”

Participants at the Edmonton conference collected $21,000 to contribute toward the legal costs for the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience.

Ontario is the only jurisdiction with this type of policy that disciplines health care providers for choosing to not participate in physician-assisted dying.

In Alberta, a physician must provide unbiased information about physician-assisted dying but not a referral.

“You can say ‘No, it’s against my religion,’ but you need to help them in some way,” said Kelly Eby, a spokesperson for the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“You can’t abandon your patient no matter what your personal beliefs are. They have a legal right to medical assistance in dying.”

An Alberta government review of the province’s Medical Assistance in Dying regulations is expected to be completed later this year.

Ontario case could have ramifications for country

 Still, if the Ontario case is appealed to the Supreme Court, doctors in Alberta say there is a chance that all physicians in Canada may eventually be expected to provide that effective referral.

“Absolutely. It’s not a matter of if but a matter of when, if it goes through. It will affect all of our practices,” said Dr. Mary Ellen Haggerty, an Edmonton family physician and the Alberta representative on the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies.

Worthen said that unlike abortion, the effective referral requirement affects many medical disciplines.

Some doctors have moved from Ontario to Alberta because of the forced referral, or modified their practice, but Worthen said physicians shouldn’t do that.

“I think they should continue on in their work, because if there comes a point where the college disciplines someone for this, it puts us politically in a much better position.”

Worthen said he hopes Catholic physicians will raise the issue in their parishes. And he encouraged all Catholics show their support financially through the Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience website ( and to ask their provincial legislators to support conscience rights.

“What we need is a people power revolution,” Worthen said, adding it’s an issue that’s too important for the Church to ignore.

“I think by tackling these big life and death issues, it makes the Church more relevant.”