Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Doctor's faith under scrutiny

Barrie physician won't offer the pill, could lose his licence

Barrie, Ontario, Canada (2002)

The Barrie Examiner,
February 21, 2002
Reproduced with permission
Cheryl Canning

Dr. Stephen Dawson faces a discipline committee at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in April because he refused to prescribe birth control pills to unmarried women.

A Barrie doctor could lose his licence to practise medicine because of his religious beliefs.

Dr. Stephen Dawson faces a discipline committee at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in April because he refused to prescribe birth control pills to unmarried women.

"If a Christian physician must forsake his religious beliefs to maintain his medical licence, we cannot delude ourselves to believe we live in a free country," said Dawson.

Last summer, four female patients made formal complaints to the college, citing Dawson's refusal to prescribe birth control to the "unmarried" women as the reason, he said.

Dawson believes that when a doctor prescribes birth control pills to an unmarried woman, he unwittingly promotes sex outside of marriage, because he removes the fear of pregnancy.

In a letter addressed to his patients, Dawson quotes warnings from Ezekiel 3:18-21: "When you do not warn nor dissuade an unrighteous man from his evil ways, he will lose his soul for his iniquity, and his blood will be on your hands. Yet if you do warn him and he does not change from his evil ways, he will lose his soul, but you will at least save your own soul."

Dawson said he was advised he should have referred the patients to another doctor to prescribe the pill, but he feels that because the pill doesn't require a referral to a specialist, the patients were free to find another doctor on their own.

Kathryn Clarke, the spokesperson for the college of physicians, said after a review of the previous 10 years' discipline reports, she doesn't believe the college has had to address a similar situation.

"I don't know of any other case like this," said Clarke.

Although it is not specifically detailed in the college's regulations that doctors' must prescribe certain medications (that may interfere with their religious beliefs), Clarke doesn't describe the action as falling into a grey area.

"There is no precedent, I know it's not written down, the standards are more general in nature - they're not that specific."

Clarke says the committee determines what the standards are once evidence has been presented during the hearing.

So until the committee actually meets, Dawson has only been loosely charged with 'professional misconduct in that he failed to meet the overall moral and professional standard of care.'

The disciplinary committee is comprised of three doctors and two members of the public. They have several options when it comes to disciplining doctors.

The doctor can be reprimanded, his licence could be suspended for a period of time, or they could impose certain terms and conditions on his licence, or revoke his licence.

"Based upon the allegations, we will present evidence to prove those allegations and his lawyer will defend those accusations," Clarke said.

The Canadian Medical Association Code of Ethics reads 'When a physician's religious or moral conscience alone prevents him from recommending some form of therapy, he will so acquaint the patient.'

Dr. James Robert Brown, a professor of science and religion at the University of Toronto, said he agrees with prosecuting a doctor with that sort of conflict. "Suppose someone (doctor) said, 'I'm uncomfortable with (treating) a minority,' I'd say, 'So long scum'," said Brown.

Brown believes performing abortions and offering other forms of contraception are necessary and if Dawson won't perform them, then, Brown added, 'Fine - just resign from medicine and find another job."

"Religious beliefs are highly emotional - as is any belief that is effecting your behaviour in society. You have no right letting your private beliefs effect your public behaviour."

At this point, Dawson may back down a little on his stand for religious freedom.

After speaking with his lawyer earlier this week, the college has suggested he write letters to the four women, apologizing for what might have been perceived as an "overzealous" approach to their request for oral contraceptives. If he does, he feels they might reconsider their professional misconduct charges.

However, he is still tossing around the prospect of how he could inform prospective clientele of his desire not to prescribe the pill, provide abortions, offer the-morning-after pill to unmarried women, or prescribe Viagra (a sex enhancement drug) to unmarried men.

"I'm willing to compromise," said Dawson.

But Father Tom Lynch, a professor of St. Augustine Seminary at the University of Toronto, said that might not be necessary. Lynch said conscience clauses are pretty typical.

"He has a right in terms of not doing anything that goes against his conscience," he said.