Over the past four and half years, Research Co. and Glacier Media have asked Canadians about a wide range of issues. In May, when we last took a glance at the country’s moral compass, majorities of Canadians found three issues as acceptable: physician-assisted death (61 per cent), sexual relations between two people of the same sex (59 per cent) and abortion (55 per cent).
There are some understandable fluctuations when Canadians ponder specific policies. For instance, more than three in five Canadians (62 per cent) supported the move to ban the practice of “conversion therapy” this year and a majority (53 per cent) told us there is no need to reopen a debate about abortion now.
The opinions of Canadians on complex matters are never universal. We would not find the same proportion of residents expressing moral reservations about a particular issue and voicing support or opposition to a piece of legislation that agreed or disagreed with their views. Medical professionals, however, are in a different place.
In February 2020, just weeks before Canadians became preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about the concept of conscience rights for medical practitioners. At the time, the Government of Alberta had shelved its proposed Bill 207, which sought to enable health-care practitioners in the province to abstain from providing services to an individual if they considered that their conscientious beliefs would be infringed upon.
We-asked these questions again earlier this month, and we can see that the views are changing. This month, 56 per cent of Canadians disagree with health-care professionals having the ability to object to providing services if they have a moral or faith-based objection to abortion. This represents a seven-point increase from our previous survey in February 2020 (49 per cent). The proportion of Canadians who would not be upset if a doctor chose not to facilitate an abortion fell by seven points, from 39 per cent to 32 per cent.
In no region do we see more than two in five residents agreeing with the notion of a doctor walking out on a patient seeking to terminate a pregnancy on account of moral beliefs. The proportions are higher in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba (36 per cent) and British Columbia (35 per cent), but drop in Alberta (30 per cent), Atlantic Canada (28 per cent) and Quebec (25 per cent).
As expected, Conservative Party of Canada voters in 2021 are more likely to side with conscience rights on this example (40 per cent) than Canadians who supported the Liberal Party of Canada (31 per cent) and the New Democratic Party (NDP) (24 per cent) last year.
In 2020, Canadians were practically evenly split when asked to consider the predicament of a health-care professional being compelled to provide physician-assisted death: 44 per cent agreed with the doctor’s ability to refuse the service on moral grounds, while 42 per cent disagreed. This year, the needle tilted away from conscience rights, with 36 per cent of Canadians (down eight points) saying they would consent to a doctor refusing to provide this service, while a majority (51 per cent, up nine points) would not allow any moral or faith-based objections on physician-assisted death.
Again, support for this concept is higher in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan (41 per cent) and British Columbia (39 per cent), but Alberta is now closer to its western neighbours (38 per cent) than to Atlantic Canada (30 per cent) or Quebec (29 per cent).
There is a key difference in the political numbers. New Democrats and Liberals are not overly supportive of conscience rights in physician-assisted death (27 per cent and 35 per cent respectively), but the proportion rises to 50 per cent among Conservatives.
Finally, opposition to medical practitioners refusing to treat patients due to a moral or faith-based objection to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, gender diverse, queer and Two-Spirit (LGBTQ2+) people increased markedly, from 58 per cent in 2020 to 63 per cent in 2022. Only 26 per cent of Canadians (down five points) think doctors, if they feel a moral obligation, can turn patients away on account of their sexuality, identity or preference.
This year, more than half of Canadians (52 per cent) say they would oppose a provincial bill that sought to allow health-care professionals the ability to have a moral or faith-based objection to providing specific services, up three points since 2020. Only 34 per cent (down five points) would endorse this course of action from their provincial legislature.
It is important to note that support for somehow enshrining conscience rights in health-care delivery fell across all three age groups over the past two and a half years: to 41 per cent among Canadians aged 18 to 34 (down two points), to 33 per cent among those aged 35 to 54 (down three points) and to 29 per cent among those aged 55 and over (down 10 points). We do not see, as is often the case in public opinion research, a generation pulling away from a concept while another one embraces it. When it comes to health-care delivery across Canada, morality is now more likely to be regarded as a barrier for reasonable access.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from November 12 to November 14, 2022, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error – which measures sample variability – is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.