EDMONTON — A bill that many worry will restrict Albertans’ access to abortion, LGBTQ health care and contraception passed the first reading in the province’s legislature Thursday.
United Conservative MLA Dan Williams, who represents Peace River, introduced the Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act, which aims to assert freedom of conscience and religion for health providers.
“Health care providers should never have to choose between their most deeply held beliefs and their job,” said Williams in a written statement released after the vote.
The private member’s bill would amend the Alberta Human Rights Act to include “conscientious beliefs” as a basis for protection from discrimination, or refusal of employment. Basically, doctors would be able to refuse treatments or referring patients for treatments they are “morally” opposed to. These could include things like abortions, gender-affirming surgery or even contraception.
WATCH: Canadians react to strict U.S. abortion laws. Story continues below.
It passed first reading with support along party lines, with 36 UCP MLAs in attendance in favour and all 15 NDP MLAs opposed. Now it will move to a standing committee.
Critics of the bill, including the opposition NDP, worry it’s a roundabout way of reopening the abortion debate, something UCP Premier Jason Kenney said he wouldn’t do.
“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,” said NDP health critic David Shepherd Wednesday.
Doctors and nurses from across the province have also taken to social media to speak out against the bill.
In a Twitter thread, MacEwan University professor Kristopher Wells called so-called conscious rights a “blatant attack” on human rights in the province.
Wells warned that the bill would allow medical professionals to discriminate against women, racial minorities and LGBTQ people.
“Freedom of religion cannot be used to discriminate against others; especially in public service,” he wrote. “Jason Kenney wants to change that.”
In February, ahead of the provincial election, Kenney, a catholic, said his party “would not engage” in a debate around abortion.
“I’ve been clear about that,” the now-premier said at the time. “A United Conservative government will not address this issue, will not engage in this debate, will not initiate legislation.”
Despite this, Kenney’s UCP were heralded by anti-abortion advocates as potentially being one of the province’s “most pro-life” governments in history. As a Conservative MP under Stephen Harper, Kenney had a history of voting in favour of pro-life legislation and a motion in 2012 to explore whether a fetus was a human being before birth. That motion was defeated in the house.
Kenney has not commented publicly on Williams’s bill. Williams denies the private members’ bill is intended to curtail abortion and other services, but rather that it’s in response to an Appeal Court of Ontario ruling this spring.
Ontario’s high court found physicians who object on moral grounds to contentious issues like abortion must still offer patients an “effective referral” to another health provider.
With files from the Canadian Press.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Kenney introduced the controversial 2012 motion. He actually just voted in favour.