EDMONTON - A private member's bill that would have given further protection to Alberta health workers who invoked their conscience rights has been rejected at the committee level.

The standing committee on private members' bills heard from four doctors, the Trans Equality Society of Alberta and Dying with Dignity Canada before voting against the proposal.

The bill was brought forward by United Conservative government backbencher Dan William.

It would have meant that health-care providers could not be sued or sanctioned for refusing to provide services — such as abortion, assisted dying or contraception — that went against their moral beliefs.

Currently, Alberta doctors who don't want to perform those services must refer patients to someone who will.

Concerns had been raised by the Opposition NDP that the bill could have created a back-door way to restrict access to abortion and contraception, particularly in rural areas where access to physicians and services can be limited.

A doctor and a transgender rights advocate raised similar concerns before the committee Thursday.

"Conscience rights are used by anti-abortion groups, specifically and openly, as a way to reopen this debate," said Dr. Jillian Ratti.

Holly Tomm, president of the Trans Equality Society of Alberta, added the bill would further decrease health-care access for members of the LGBTQ community.

"If we reach out to those agencies and we get a stone wall — no other referrals, no other information — we crawl back into our closets and we start harming ourselves," said Tomm.

There was support for the bill.

Dr. Kiely Williams suggested rural physicians could leave or quit if their beliefs were not protected.

"If we don't allow the freedoms for people to object, my point is that we will lose it for everyone," she said.

Two of the committee's 10 members voted in support of the bill moving forward, which means the committee will recommend the bill not go to the legislature.

Janis Irwin, the NDP's critic for women and LGBTQ issues, called the 8-2 vote a victory.

"We did it," she wrote on Twitter. "Albertans, thank you. You spoke out. You wrote your MLAs. You demanded we not take our province backward. This is a victory, but we must remember there’s so much work ahead in the fight for a strong public health-care system for all."

The committee did vote unanimously to send another bill amending the law on organ and tissue donation to the assembly.

If implemented, that legislation will allow people's organs to be automatically recovered unless they had opted out while still alive. (CTV Edmonton, The Canadian Press)

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2019.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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