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Ontario Should Strengthen Healthcare Workers’ Conscience Rights Protections


April 19, 2022

OTTAWA, ON – Ontario needs to do a better job protecting healthcare workers’ conscience rights. A new policy brief by think-tank Cardus outlines how the province should update its laws to protect freedom of conscience for physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. The new law would shield healthcare workers from being required to perform or provide effective referrals for procedures that go against their conscience. It would also protect them from employment or disciplinary action in these cases.

Doesn’t the Charter of Rights and Freedoms already protect freedom of conscience?

As Cardus reported in Our Inner Guide: Protecting Freedom of Conscience, the Supreme Court of Canada has only made one ruling that relied exclusively on freedom of conscience in the past 40 years. This makes freedom of conscience effectively dormant in the courts. Queen’s Park has an opportunity to proactively define the extent of this freedom, especially in a healthcare setting.

An added issue is the continuing expansion of assisted suicide (or medical assistance in dying). This creates growing challenges to freedom of conscience, which is complementary to, but distinct from, freedom of religion. As Canada moves to expand the availability of assisted suicide for mental illness, non-religious doctors may conscientiously object to referring patients for this procedure.

Meanwhile, almost 7 in 10 Canadians agree freedom of conscience and religion make Canada a better country, according to a poll by the Angus Reid Institute in partnership with Cardus.  However, Canadians are also more likely to say that these fundamental freedoms are getting weaker rather than stronger.

How can Ontario protect healthcare workers’ conscience rights?

Ontario’s government should introduce a bill to uphold and protect the freedom of conscience for health practitioners, covering the direct or indirect participation in any procedure that violates the practitioner’s conscientious convictions. Any bill should cover four key points:

  • Protection for all healthcare workers.
  • Protection for any objectionable procedure that violates the practitioner’s conscience.
  • Protection from effective referrals for procedures or drugs that conflict with conscience.
  • Protection from disciplinary or employment action over matters of conscience.

“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes freedom of conscience and religion as a fundamental freedom–the highest form of freedom,” says Andreae Sennyah, Policy Director at Cardus. “Ontario’s leaders should recognize it as such, especially considering the expanded eligibility for assisted suicide to mental illness in 2023.”

The Protecting Conscience Rights for Ontario Healthcare Workers policy brief is available online.


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